During a television interview on September 24, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi announced the end of Tunisia’s consensus policy (tawafouk), saying, “The consensus and relationship between Ennahda and myself has ended, after they chose to form another relationship with [Prime Minister] Youssef Chahed.” This represented the culmination of a government crisis that has intensified since January and is the final nail in the coffin for the ruling coalition outlined in the July 2016 Carthage Agreement.
Two years after Chahed’s national unity government took office, the success of its performance is inconclusive and ambivalent. Although many economic and anti-corruption reform projects have been implemented, critics complain that the country’s greatest challenges have still not been resolved and that, in some cases, they have intensified. Although the governing coalition has never been too cohesive, the circumstances that first paved the way for the Carthage Agreement have changed—meaning a similar temporary halt to intragovernmental dispute is unlikely to be forged.
In January 2018, Afek Tounes and Mashrou Tounes, two of the original signatories of the Carthage Agreement, publicly disavowed the accord, pointing to the apparent failure of the consensus policy to pursue official legislative initiatives. In March 2018, President Essebsi convened an expert committee consisting of eighteen members of the organizations that signed the Carthage Agreement. This committee aimed to draw up a more far-reaching roadmap for intragovernmental cooperation—though he continued to insist that “a reshuffle of the cabinet and a discussion about the prime minister are not on the agenda.” On May 28, shortly after Tunisia’s first free and fair local elections and after two months of work, this expert commission finally submitted a new draft accord, which became known as the Second Carthage Agreement, though different in form and content from its predecessor. This agreement was essentially an action plan to see the current governing coalition through until the next parliamentary and presidential elections likely to be held in late 2019. The draft, which has not yet been made public, proposed four categories of reforms—economic, social, political, and administrative—and included a demand for a comprehensive government reshuffle that would see Youssef Chahed removed as prime minister.
Yet some Ennahda members opposed removing Chahed, and party leader Rached Ghannouchi refused to approve the agreement, arguing that “the country cannot withstand a complete removal of the government.” In response, Essebsi suspended negotiations, demanded Chahed’s resignation, and convened a special session among the main actors of the Second Carthage Agreement—culminating in his September 24 interview, which signaled an official end to the politics of consensus.
Such an acrimonious end to the national unity government may seem unsurprising. And yet it seems clear from Essebsi’s rhetoric that there is a distinction between formal politics and their symbolic dimensions. With respect to formal politics, the president is confronted by two core aspirations: to undertake a far-reaching government reshuffle that includes Chahed’s removal and—given the opportunity presented by Ennahda’s advocacy for Chahed—to back out of its consensus with Ennahda, which would terminate both the first and second Carthage Agreements. Yet further statements by the president suggest that government will continue to uphold a basic conception of national unity. As Essebsi stated in the September 24 interview, “There is no prospect of Tunisia getting out of its myriad crises without a government of national unity,” and he underlined this vision with the slogan “Homeland before the parties.”
Nidaa Tounes, for its part, is concerned for its survival as a political actor. It needs to make rapid changes to avoid further loss of popular approval, as seen in its performance in the May 2018 municipal elections. Furthermore, Nidaa Tounes is anxious that internal political pressures will undermine the party, especially as President Essebsi has increasingly intervened in party politics over the past couple years and particularly in the past few months. Strategically, Essebsi’s persistent interference in party politics owes to his status as a founding father of Nidaa Tounes and as one of the key architects of the consensus policy. Although he had nominated Youssef Chahed as head of government, he has instead been backing Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, his own son and the party’s current leader—even though representative opinion polls show that Chahed is one of the most popular politicians in the country, in stark contrast to the president’s exceedingly unpopular son.
This has led to a wave of MPs leaving the Nidaa Tounes bloc in parliament. In August 2016, the Nidaa Tounes parliamentary faction consisted of 86 deputies, of whom between 40 and 50 have since left the bloc, with the number continuing to rise—and some have even resigned from the party altogether. Tellingly, the majority of those who have left the parliamentary group have joined the new National Coalition bloc created on August 27 by former Nidaa Tounes MP Mustapha Ben Ahmed and which is formally allied with Chahed’s government. Nonetheless, Nidaa Tounes merged with the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) on October 14, which has partially boosted its falling numbers and its position in parliament. With 53 deputies as of its formation, the merger has edged out the National Coalition, which has 51 MPs, though both still lag behind Ennahda’s 68 deputies.
Compared to Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda insists maintaining the national unity policy and a stable government. According to Ennahda, a complete government reshuffle is thus not appropriate. Ennahda, the main political opponent of Nidaa Tounes, reaps several political advantages from the formal elite compromise. First, Ennahda continues to indirectly influence the ongoing fragmentation of Nidaa Tounes through Ghannouchi’s public advocacy for Chahed. This has, however, led to internal controversies within Ennahda’s leadership, who have emphasized that this advocacy has worsened relations with Essebsi, in contravention of the decisions taken in May 2016 at the party’s Tenth Congress to maintain political solidarity with the president and a commitment to the consensus policy. Perhaps this is precisely why Ennahda is now constantly affirming that, despite differences of opinion, it still has a very good relationship with Essebsi.
Second, Ennahda needs the formal consensus framework to secure its own existence against any legal challenges ahead of the 2019 elections—worried especially by the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Ennahda’s position in the current government is evidently paying off. The party forms the largest parliamentary faction but, as a junior partner in a government coalition dominated by Nidaa Tounes, it cannot be held solely responsible for the coalition’s policies—as it was, to its detriment, between 2011 and 2014. And despite considerable losses, Ennahda seems to be consolidating its popular appeal all over the country, with the party winning the most votes in the May 2018 municipal elections.
Ultimately, this “government crisis” is limited and does not jeopardize the foundations of Tunisia’s young democracy. The course of events instead suggests that the principal source of division is whether to continue the policy of political consensus, which is tied to the fate of Youssef Chahed. The previous political model of national unity—that is, the implementation of policies for the benefit of all Tunisians—remains largely unaffected. This is because President Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes, the opponents of the present policy, want to separate the symbolism of “national unity” from formal consensus in order to develop and implement their own policies.
With the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon, the president and the parties are now faced with the dual challenge of appearing more independent, with distinguishable language and political programs, while at the same time avoiding exacerbating the political conflict too much. Freeing themselves from the necessity of political compromise could enhance their capacity for action. All this could, in fact, be considered a process of “normalization,” as consensus only seems to be effective if it includes freely mediated debates on competing visions and is not simply dictated from above. Consequently, transforming the basic program of recent years—the achievement of national unanimity through consensus—into party competition would help to renew the process of debate which, after all, is inherent to politics.
Julius Dihstelhoff is a research fellow in the Department of Politics at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany.