Tension in Tunisia

February 11, 2013 - 12:35:36 am

The transition to democracy is proving to be excruciatingly painful for Arab Spring countries. But Tunisia was touted as an exception because it didn’t witness the kind of mayhem and uncertainty witnessed in other Spring countries. But in the past few days, Tunis too has been causing concern. The country is lurching from crisis to crisis with no signs of an immediate solution. 

Tunisia’s transitional coalition government is hanging in the balance after President Moncef Marzouki’s secular party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), said its ministers would withdraw. This is a continuation of the crisis which started with the murder of Chokri Belaid, a left-leaning lawyer and critic of the government. Choki’s killing shocked the country and revealed the chilling truth that Tunisia is far away from stabilizing itself after the overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali. 

The CPR’s threat follows Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s gamble on forming a new cabinet in defiance of his Islamist party. On Saturday, the prime minister, a moderate within his Ennahda party, threatened to quit and warned of chaos unless key ministries held by fellow Islamists go to independents in a new government of non-partisan technocrats. Ennahda has warned it will take to the streets to insist on its right to govern following its October 2011 election triumph.

Tunisia has been projected as a model because of the relative calm with which it managed its affairs after Ben Ali. But if the current crisis persists, it faces the threat of instability and turmoil which can undo all gains. The assassination of Chokri proves that Islamic extremists pose a real threat and unless countered immediately, can become unmanageable. Tunisia is known for its liberal attitudes and tolerance and Islamists, which some are calling Salafists, should not be allowed to tarnish this image.

After taking power, Moncef Marzouki said that Salafists are a tiny minority within a tiny minority. “They don’t represent society or the state. They cannot be a real danger to society or government, but they can be very harmful to the image of the government,” he added. 

But last week’s killing has proved him wrong. Jebali claims that his proposed reshuffle towards a non-political, caretaker government until elections was the only way to bring an end to the unrest or the country risked “a swing into chaos”. Jebali’s emergency proposal to dissolve government and replace politicians with technocrats has sparked tensions within Ennahda.  

It’s time for anti-extremist forces to unite and save the country from turmoil. For this, all parties need to make compromises and refrain from unilateral decisions that would undermine unity. Even if the prime minister’s proposal is good, it has to be the result of a consensus. A dispute over the issue and violent demonstrations can undo the gains expected from it.