Farewell to Tunisia's "national consensus"

The decision by Caid Essebsi to end five years of consensus politics is likely to heighten sociopolitical tensions in the North African state and deepen a burgeoning economic crisis. Tunisian journalist Ismail Dbara analyses the reasons for the break-up and the consequences for democratisation within the country

By Ismail Dbara

Unsurprisingly, the decision made at the end of September by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to withdraw from the "national consensus" struck with the Islamic Renaissance Party (Ennahda) has exacerbated political turmoil within the country, which already faces a host of economic and social problems.

Essebsi made the announcement about his former ally because of a disagreement between the two parties on whether the government should continue or not. He also renewed his call to Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to go to parliament to secure a vote of confidence. However, this rupture in relations does not seem to have the dangerous implications it might once have had, given the way things are today.

The consensus between the secularists and the Islamists in Tunisia has lasted for five years and although the agreement between these diametrically opposed groups is fragile and built on false premises, observers see it as the "magic ingredient" which has stopped Tunisia from going down the same path as Libya, Yemen and Syria. For all that, the experiment is incomplete and lacks any constitutional basis.

The beginning of the end

There have been many signs this year that the consensus was approaching its end and that the conditions for its continuance had disappeared. Indeed, the political map has changed drastically. The party with the most elected representatives – Nidaa Tounes – is no longer the largest party, nor even the second largest after a wave of resignations. This has led to huge cracks within the ruling party, which President Essebsi founded in order to balance the political scene after the Islamistsʹ dominance.

Naturally, the Islamists have exploited the fragmentation of the alliance. Recently Ennahda has begun singing from a quite different hymn sheet, in tones that firmly contradict the policy of "consensus" which has been in place since August 2013.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Confident, even without a vote: Prime Minister Youssef Chahed enjoys the backing of a large number of parliamentary representatives, including from Ennahda and others, who have broken away from Nidaa Tounes and formed a new parliamentary bloc. Chahed can also count on substantial external support from private donors who applaud the policies of privatisation which he has adopted


Another sign of the breakdown of the alliance is President Essebsiʹs initiative to give women equal inheritance rights under a law which has yet to be presented in parliament. In Ennahdaʹs eyes, the move was intended to embarrass and blackmail the party politically and they loudly rejected it. After all, the issue of inheritance is very sensitive in political Islam.

The two former allies are now closer to a divorce than at any time previously, especially amid their trading of accusations and insults in the media and they have clashed ever more openly over the question of whether the current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed should stay in office. For months, Chahed has been at variance with Hafez Caid Essebsi, the Presidentʹs son and executive director of "Nidaa Tounes", who is seen by the party as the likely heir to his father. He is also seen as the one who has caused division within the party and precipitated the departure of its leaders and members – thanks to mismanagement and the dominance of the Essebsi family.

Essebsiʹs not finished yet

Anyone following Beji Caid Essebsi since his return to the scene in 2011 after many years in the political wilderness, will realise that this wily old politician, who helped to lay the foundations of the twin tyrannies of Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, will not surrender without a fight. He certainly wonʹt raise the white flag, despite the failure of his and his sonʹs efforts to remove Youssef Chahed from the premiership.

Beji Caid Essebsi always says: "I am the leader!" and "I know what Iʹm doing!" His stumbles in front of the media suggest an obdurate personality and someone who doesnʹt give up. Indeed, many people see his decision to run for president at his advanced age as an obsessive desire to call in an old debt owed to him by Ennahda. The party once promised him the presidency, only to disavow the promise and switch their preference to their one-time ally Moncef Marzouki. In response, Essebsi established his own party, returning in 2014 as the elected and legitimate leader.On the other hand, Essebsi appeared weak and unconvincing in his television interview, when he announced that he was terminating his relationship with the Islamists and that he had urged the prime minister, whom he himself recommended for the post, to go to parliament to seek a vote of confidence. Chahed is almost guaranteed to win such a vote, however, owing to a large number of representatives, including from Ennahda and others, who have broken away from Nidaa Tounes and formed a new parliamentary bloc. Chahed can also count on substantial external support from private donors who applaud the policies of privatisation which he has adopted.

The final year

It is the last year of Essebsiʹs presidency and it seems he will use it to put his house in order and to stop the resignations which are bleeding his party. It is likely that he will take over the task which his son failed to accomplish. He may also be obliged to expedite the inheritance law in order to increase pressure on Ennahda and to goad the new parliamentary bloc that supports Chahed into setting out its "ideological" stance vis a vis Ennahda.

After all, it will be difficult for this fragmented bloc to agree on anything which is not in accord with the Islamists, except if itʹs needed to keep the prime minister in office. In matters apart from this, the differences between them are stark. Many of these representatives quit the presidentʹs party because of its agreement with the Islamists. Ennahda may well realise that it canʹt rely on this arrangement to compensate for such a strong and dependable ally as President Essebsi.

As for Essebsi, he will inevitably drive a wedge between the two parties by playing to their respective strengths and weaknesses, preventing any rapprochement between his former cohorts who quit his party and the Islamists. He wonʹt find a better way of doing this than by proposing the inheritance law and he may well intensify co-ordination with the powerful trade union body (the Tunisian General Labour Union), which in turn is calling for the departure of Youssef Chahed and threatening a general strike next month.

Ennahda sticks to the "consensus"

In the midst of Essebsiʹs manoeuvres to stay active on the Tunisian stage, despite his limited powers under the new constitution, the Islamists are eager to explain the Presidentʹs statements differently. In an official statement, Ennahda expressed their commitment to the consensus approach and they renewed their praise for President Essebsi and for his role in the successful transition to democracy.

At the same time, they reiterated their difference of views on a number of issues facing the country, foremost of which is the stability of the government. In this regard, Ennahda is unlikely to deny the solid relationship it enjoys with the President of the Republic. The comments of Ennahdaʹs leaders in the media have all been in this direction, despite the fact that Essebsi has made plain that the period of consensus politics in Tunisia is over at Ennahdaʹs request and not the other way round.

Whatever the case, the Islamists of Ennahda recognise that co-existence with the secularists is no longer an option that is determined by the balance of power between the parties. The role of the party which won the 2014 elections is not what it was. This reinforces the view that the delicate consensus was merely a "tactical alliance" and it has served its purpose.

As for the division of power between the secularists and the Islamists, it is clear that it will continue, whether as a result of internal or external pressures that either embrace the Tunisian experience or seek to offer it as a success story in a region plagued by conflicts and wars.

Ismail Dbara

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton