Tunisia’s political crisis deepened on Monday when a party within the country’s ruling troika called for the government’s dissolution. The demand from the secular Ettakatol party comes days after the assassination of opposition politician Mohammed Brahmi on July 25; Tunisia’s second political assassination in six months prompted nationwide demonstrations, the boycott by 65 legislators of the National Assembly, and the resignation of a top minister.
Distrust of Tunisia’s Islamist leadership (the moderate Ennahda party dominates the ruling coalition) has been growing since it won 2011 elections; in February 2013, anger over insecurity crystallized around the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid. Then, as now, the outbreak of violence brought tensions within the coalition (and within the ruling party) to the surface; following Belaid’s assassination, Ennahda rejected calls to replace the government by then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who was subsequently ousted, and implemented instead a cabinet reshuffle. Now, unrest has sparked fears of a descent into political chaos much like that currently taking place in Egypt. But while Brahmi’s death has the potential to topple another cabinet — Tunisia’s parliament risks paralysis if additional members withdraw — the departure of the Ennahda-led coalition remains a hypothetical for now. Granted, Tunisia’s bumpy trajectory is familiar: like Egypt, the conservative, predominantly Muslim nation saw its dictator toppled by a popular revolution; an Islamist party democratically elected; and a subsequent turn against said party amid economic stagnation and high youth unemployment.
These similarities notwithstanding, however, the absence of several key elements will shape Tunisia’s future. Despite widespread frustration with Ennahda, a strong counterweight among the opposition has yet to emerge. Two years after a lack of cohesion cost secular parties national elections, groups like Nidaa Tounes and the Popular Front have made only marginal political inroads, according to national polls. (A unifying opposition figure is missing as well.) In addition, though Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laaraydh made a defiant address on Monday refusing calls for his government’s dissolution, he also alluded to the possibility of a cabinet change. Meaning that while Ennahda may be mounting stiff resistance to its own decommission, a Morsi-esque refusal to make any concessions is lacking. Indeed, the party has proven willing to compromise on key issues with its secular counterparts. Lastly, and most importantly, Tunisia’s military is a significant part of this equation. One day before Brahmi’s death, the Tunisian Armed Forces released a statement emphasizing their “apolitical nature.”
Tunisia’s current crisis may play out more like the tenacious, but increasingly ineffectual, demonstrations in Turkey, rather than the violent clashes in Egypt. That said, if Ennahda survives this round of protests, it may have a limited shelf life. True, the party has already set a date for national elections (to be held on December 17) and promised to finish the much-delayed constitution by October. But it will need to resolve its ambiguous stance on religious extremists to survive — a herculean task given that a swing either left or right on the question risks alienating segments of voters the party desperately needs. Given that the ruling party has failed to do so thus far (along with failing to right Tunisia’s sinking economy), it remains up to the opposition to seize the opportunity, and ride Ennahda’s failures to a December victory. If this year of global protests is any indication — i.e., that the will of the people is fickle, critical, and unpredictable — the vote could be anyone’s game.