Looking for a New Beginning

New jobs, discipline and national unity - according to Tunisia's new head of government, Ali Larayedh, this is what the country needs. But time is quickly running out. Ute Schaeffer reports from Tunis

By Ute Schaeffer

The new Tunisian government is only meant to stay for a year. After that, the country is to have fresh elections. But observers say that the months of policy-making in between will be decisive: is Tunisia going to set sails for the Turkish model and transform itself into a modern state with a liberal economy and a Muslim value system? Or will the country sink back into anarchy and violence, as a refuge for Islamist extremists?

Slow changes and a situation that deteriorates

"Our political leadership is losing too much time," says Kamal Ben Younes, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Assabah and director of the new TV news station Al Janubia. His criticism: "They are always looking for a compromise."

"Ennahda came from a public movement. What it lacks is competency and a concrete plan of action - for instance, when it comes to the economy," argues Slaheddine Jourchi, journalist and vice-president of the country's Human Rights Union

​​The new government is meant to set things right quickly before time runs out. Unemployment figures remain high, food prices keep going up, and tourists continue to stay away - the country is on a steep economic decline. At the same time, mistrust and tension are on the rise, as secular and religious groups are caught in an uncompromising standoff.

But it's the Salafists who are gaining ground. Under the dictatorship of Ben Ali they were persecuted, and many of their followers disappeared behind bars. The revolution set them free again, and even though there are no exact figures, it appears that their numbers are increasing rapidly. The increase is due to the wide-spread disappointment with the status quo, says journalist Slaheddine Jourchi.

"Immediately following the revolution, the Tunisian state was weak - and it has remained so until today," he told DW. "That has been exploited by agents from abroad, to support extremists within the country and weaken the moderate forces." Some believe that Salafist groups in Tunisia receive funding from Saudi Arabia.

Influences from abroad

A stable government is important for the country not to become a pawn of its Arab neighbours - some of whom propagate a very conservative, Wahabist version of Islam.

"Those revolutions in the Arab world have turned the order in the whole region upside down," Jourchi said. "That's why, after the fall of the dictators, some players very actively try to influence the succession issue - to strengthen conservative Muslim forces and weaken liberal ones."

Souad Abdelrahim is the sole female member of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party not to wear a headscarf. For her, the murder of the high-ranking secular opposition member Chokri Belaid was a wake-up call for the political establishment

​​These developments could have devastating effects on a country like Tunisia, which for years had a reputation of being open-minded and modern. The strongest blow for recent developments was the murder of the high-ranking secular opposition member Chokri Belaid in early February. All sides agree that the circumstances of this politically motivated murder remain unknown. For the act meant a turning point.

"It was obvious: We now have to agree on a schedule immediately - a clear-cut plan that tells us what project has to be finished when," she said. "That's why I also believe that we will finish drafting the constitution rather quickly now."

Three tasks: security, economy, political order

A clear schedule that is rapidly moving forward - that's what will determine the success of the new leadership. Since the Jasmine Revolution two years ago, there have already been a handful of governments, all trying to master the challenges of a reborn country: reinstating safety throughout the country, offering a perspective in life for around 200,000 young academics, but most of all, adopting a constitution and holding elections.

These long-promised reforms are to be implemented by the end of the year. Considering the extent of public discontent, the new government can be sure to be measured against the results it delivers. This mostly concerns the areas of security, economy and political order. There is a lot to be done, and many say that changes will only be recognised once they have a tangible impact on people's daily lives.

Major distrust against policy makers

The biggest problem for the new government - and, with it, the democracy model itself - are deep issues of trust that politicians throughout the country are facing. Surveys suggest that more than half of the electorate is not going to take part in the next vote based on the mistrust they harbour against their political leadership.

A nation in turmoil: Tunisia has been struggling to emerge from the political crisis exacerbated by the daylight murder on February 6 of of leading opposition figure Chokri Belaid. The murder has caused the biggest riots since the revolution

​​"This lack of trust constitutes a big burden," said Jourchi. When the Jasmine Revolution took off in Tunisia, the calls were not for democracy, but for "bread", "justice", and "dignity." People cried out for social justice and work.

But so far, no matter who has been in control of the country, these demands have not been met. "If there is no economic stabilization, Tunisia it at risk of facing true anarchy," Jourchi said.

Ennahda learns from its mistakes

Tunisia does have an abundance of political parties - more than one hundred - but there's really only one which is present in all regions, cities, and on all social levels: the Islamist Ennahda, which emerged as the strongest party in the country's first freely held elections in October 2011. It has teamed up in a coalition with the social democrat Ettakol party and the center-left Congress for the Republic of President Marzouki - a cumbersome alliance, it turned out, as disagreements happen frequently.

This 'troika' does hold a 109-seat majority in parliament, but that doesn't mean it's capable of running the country. "Ennahda came from a public movement," said Jourchi. "What it lacks is competency and a concrete plan of action - for instance, when it comes to the economy."

It's because of this that Ennahda, once it was part of the government, has lost a lot of its popularity.

The formation of the new government indicates that Ennahda is bearing the consequences from these mistakes. At the end of February, they surrendered their claim to key areas of responsibility within the cabinet - areas that are now being led by proven experts.

Newly appointed as interior minister, the renowned investigative judge Lotfi Ben Jeddou, now also needs to look into the murder of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, an event that plunged the country into a deep crisis.

It falls upon Nadhir Ben Ammou, a professor of law and now minister of justice, to reform the judiciary. The legal system still has a reputation for representing the interests of the fallen dictator Ben Ali, operating in many cases neither independently nor fairly.

Last, but not least, former ambassador to the UN, Othman Jarandi, will take over the position of foreign minister. The only office that Ennahda continues to hold on to is that of the head of government itself.

It is now in the hands of the new government to determine if Tunisia will make use of the newly gained freedom from the Jasmine Revolution and transform it into democratic structures.

Ute Schaeffer

© Deutsche Welle 2013

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp