Considered to be the most successful among Arab countries in transition, Tunisia is enjoying favorable reporting, and as a result it has escaped serious scrutiny. While there is no doubt that Tunisia’s transition is proving easier than other countries’, it is still facing considerable political problems—in addition to its very serious economic challenges.

The major political problem continues to be the imbalance in the political spectrum that pits the well-organized, cohesive, Islamist Ennahda party against a large number of fragmented secular parties. These parties are acutely aware that their chances for electoral success are limited unless they manage to forge larger coalitions, but they have so far failed to create lasting groupings—let alone a grand secular alliance.

Marina Ottaway
Before joining the Endowment, Ottaway carried out research in Africa and in the Middle East for many years and taught at the University of Addis Ababa, the University of Zambia, the American University in Cairo, and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
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In the meantime, the governing coalition composed of Ennahda, the secular and centrist Congress for the Republic, and secular and left-of-center Ettakatol, which was never more than a marriage of convenience among groups suspicious of each other, is showing signs of strain. While this does not mean that a crisis is imminent, it is a reminder of the difficulties and complications involved in even a successful transition.

The Governing Coalition

The so-called troika controls a total of 138 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly. Ennahda, by far the largest party with 89 seats, could not govern without the support of the other two members.

  • Ennahda (89 seats), led by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, has so far succeeded in maintaining its cohesion. While there are more liberal and more conservative tendencies in the organization, the differences have so far been kept under control. However, the party has repeatedly postponed its next congress, which is now scheduled for July 12–14. The delay suggests that the leadership fears the congress, at which internal party matters will be discussed, could heighten tensions. The recent announcement by the party’s chairman, Rached Ghannouchi, that he does not intend to seek reelection to the position will undoubtedly trigger a power struggle.
  • The Congress for the Republic (CPR, 29 seats), led by Moncef Marzouki, is showing considerable signs of strain. Marzouki, who became president of Tunisia in December 2011, has been accused by some party members of putting his personal ambition ahead of party interests. Inevitably, now that he is president of the republic, he is less directly involved in internal party affairs and as a result he has not been able to prevent twelve CPR representatives in the Constituent Assembly from seceding and forming a new party. (See Independent Democratic Congress below.)
  • Ettakatol (twenty seats), led by Mustafa Ben Jaafar, has been a reluctant ally for Ennahda. Many of Ettakatol’s officials have been surprisingly outspoken about the fact that the decision to join Ennahda in the government was based on political expediency and not on any ideological or programmatic affinity. Discontent in the ranks about the alliance has led to some defections, and above all, much grumbling.

Opposition Parties’ Coalitions

The information provided here is not set in stone because the coalitions are quite unstable and subject to change. Indeed, the announcement on June 16 of the formation of a new political party called Nedaa Tunis, or the Call for Tunisia party (see below), calls into question whether these groupings, particularly the Social Democratic Path, will last.

An early statement issued by some secular parties that they would form a grand coalition to defeat Ennahda in the next parliamentary elections, which are now tentatively scheduled for March 20, 2013, proved overly optimistic. Far from forming an all-encompassing coalition, the parties are even struggling to build small alliances. So far, only two rather small coalitions of uncertain staying power have been formed:

A still-unnamed coalition party

The party considers itself center left, but its composition suggests that it is probably more on the center than on the left. It includes:

  • The Progressive Democratic Party (sixteen seats), led by Ahmed Najib Chebbi, is secular and centrist or just left of center. It expected to do very well in the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly and is seeking a way to reassert itself as a major player in Tunisian politics. It clearly dominates the much smaller organizations in the new party.
  • Afek Tounes (four seats), led by Mustapha Mezghani, is secular, economically liberal, and seen as representing the business community.
  • The Tunisian Republican Party, led by Abdelaziz Belkhodja, is also secular and economically liberal. It is not clear how many seats it could bring to the coalition, because in the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections, it ran with several other parties as part of the Democratic Modernist Pole, which won a total of five seats.

The fact that the proponents of this party have not been able to agree on a name does not inspire confidence in the staying power of the organization.

The Social Democratic Path led by Ahmed Ibrahim and Samir Battaib, with Abdejalil Bedoui as vice president

A left-of-center coalition, the Social Democratic Path controls few parliamentary seats. Its members are:

  • The Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM, five seats) is led by Riadh Ben Fadl and Mustapha Ben Ahmed.
  • Ettajdid, led by Ahmed Ibrahim, is a leftist party that ran in 2011 as part of the PDM, so a merger of the PDM and Ettajdid would not represent real change.
  • The Tunisian Labor Party, led by Abdejalil Bedoui, has no seats in parliament.

The as-yet-unnamed party and the Social Democratic Path have been discussing the possibility of merging into one organization or at least forming a coalition. Even if the merger took place, the new entity would only have 25 seats and would thus be behind the Congress for the Republic and the Popular Petition (discussed below) in size.

This possible new six-party coalition is portrayed in most discussions as social democratic or center left. In reality, it would be an ideological hybrid, including Ettajdid and the Tunisian Labor Party (formerly communist), the centrist Progressive Democratic Party, and right-of-center economic liberal parties like Afek Tounes and the Republican Party.

Fragmented Secular Opposition Parties

Even if the two coalitions survive or merge, the secular political spectrum will remain highly fragmented. In addition to the parties discussed here, which have gained seats in the Constituent Assembly, dozens of other parties have registered and exist at least nominally. The parties outside of coalitions include:

  • Popular Petition (26 seats), led by Mohamed Hamdi, is the most notable of the parties that remain independent. Its electoral success was completely unexpected and achieved by a combination of its populist, semi-Islamist message and its appeal to the population of the economically depressed interior regions from where the founder, Hamdi, originates.

While Popular Petition is a sui generis party, difficult to classify ideologically, most of those that remain outside the coalitions have few seats in the assembly and have center or center-left profiles similar to those of the parties that are seeking to merge. The obstacles to their joining broader coalitions thus seem to be personalities and ambitions rather than ideology or a political calculus that they do not need allies. Such parties include:

  • The Free Patriotic Union (six seats), led by Slim Riahi, is a secular, economically liberal party.
  • People’s Movement (two seats), led by Mohammed Brahimi, defines itself as a Pan-Arabist nationalist and socialist party.
  • The Movement of Socialist Democrats (two seats) is led by Mohammed al-Mouadda.
  • The Maghrebian Liberal Party (one seat), led by Mohamed Bouebdelli, is a secular, economically liberal party.

A few other parties, however, would have trouble fitting into the emerging coalitions, including:

  • The Initiative (five seats), led by Kamal Mourjane, is organized and supported by elements from the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the now-disbanded party of former president Ben Ali.
  • The Tunisian Workers’ Communists Party (three seats), led by Hamma Hammami, is generally seen as a hardline, old-fashioned communist party.

New Parties

While the coalition-building efforts lag, new organizations are emerging, adding to the fragmentation. Only those that appear most likely to win seats in the next parliamentary elections are mentioned here:

  • The Independent Democratic Congress is headed by former CPR secretary general Abderraouf Ayadi, with journalist Slim Boukhdhir as spokesman. Because it was formed by defectors from the CPR, it already has twelve members in the Constituent Assembly.
  • Al-Islah of Dr. Muhammad Khoja was registered on May 11, 2012. This Salafi party demands that the constitution declares sharia to be the source of legislation. Although it also insists that Islam accepts the concepts of democracy and freedom, the party asserts that freedom is permitted only within the boundaries of Islamic law, since the ruler is bound by sharia and must enforce it in totality on all matters of everyday life. In a nod to the reality of Tunisian life, however, al-Islah claims it will not force women to wear head scarves or face veils and will not ban tourism.

Efforts have been under way for several months to establish a new party modeled on the now-dissolved, fiercely secular Neo Destour (the New Constitutional Liberal Party) of Habib Bourghiba, the first Tunisian president.

Proponents of the idea of reviving a Neo Destour–type party met on March 25, 2012, with Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as prime minister in the interim between the ouster of former president Ben Ali and the December 2011 elections. Discussed at the meeting, to which representatives from Ettajdid, Afek Tounes, and the Initiative were invited, was the possibility of creating a common front of secular parties under the Destourian banner.

The ruling troika promptly denounced the meeting as “traces of the old regime,” with one representative of the CPR saying “these people want to steal the Tunisian revolution.”

Nevertheless, on June 16, Essebsi announced the formation of Nedaa Tunis, or the Call for Tunisia party. Essebsi asserted that the new movement aims for a national consensus and to unify Tunisia’s “scattered” opposition parties. Ahmed Ibrahim—first secretary of Tunisia’s Ettajdid movement—asserted his party’s support for the new initiative and its commitment to work with Nedaa Tunis in the future. Constituent Assembly member Salma Bakkar, who belongs to the PDM, also said she would work with the new movement. It remains to be seen whether this party will contribute to unifying the opposition or add to its fragmentation.

It is probable that more parties will form before the next vote, and indeed dozens of parties still exist that are nominally registered but dormant. The Tunisian political spectrum so far is showing little sign of becoming less fragmented.