Will Tunisian Leaders Replace the President and Make Amends?

Article Summary
Against the backdrop of the bloodshed in Egypt, reports indicate that a recent Paris meeting between high-level leaders of opposing camps may have included a deal to replace the president.

Not much reliable information about the meeting in Paris between former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been leaked. However, it is known that the two have reached an agreement in principle, which foreign partners — namely the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans — have imposed. The two enemy brothers need to agree in order to achieve a democratic transition in Tunisia and to avoid an Egyptian-style bloody scenario, even if that would anger the popular bases of the two camps.

The deal includes keeping Ali Laarayedh at the head of the government and Mustapha Ben Jaafar at the head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), while replacing Moncef Marzouki with Essebsi as president of the republic. As for the government, it will consist of technocrats and politicians with the addition of two new posts of deputy prime minister; one for security affairs and the other for economic affairs. These two posts will be “offered” to the democratic opposition.

The Paris meeting between Essebsi and Ghannouchi came as a surprise for many observers and supporters of both the democrats and Islamists. Yet, it came as a half-surprise for some observers who are familiar with the Machiavellian nature of both. True political wolves, Essebsi and Ghannouchi know how to put adversity aside in order to achieve well-defined goals. This was seen in 2011, and is currently being witnessed in 2013.

Tunisia has witnessed a real political crisis since the murder of opposition leader Mohammed Brahmi on July 25, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to express their anger and desire to bring down the Islamist regime that had lost its legitimacy since Oct. 23, 2012. Facing these protests, tens of thousands of Islamist demonstrators protested to defend the regime. Each of the camps warned its opponents the worst against the background of the Egyptian scenario.

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To tackle this crisis, Tunisia’s Western partners made good moves last week. There has been a visit by the EU special delegation and a visit by the German foreign minister. The US ambassador to Tunis met with all major actors in five days. Based on leaks from these official meetings, there is a common sentiment between them all, "If you continue this way, you will be heading straight for a civil war. You need to agree, you need to achieve a democratic transition; the world is counting on you. You need to rule together and refuse to exclude anyone!” said the Germans, Americans and Europeans.

A deal had to be found, and on Aug. 14, Essebsi and Ghannouchi discussed the principles of this deal. Although Ghannouchi’s position was announced in a press conference on Aug. 15, to understand this position we must note the discussions that took place the day before.

Furthermore, many ask about the third person who attended the meeting. Only this person’s glasses, mobile phone and coffee cup were shown. He is a Tunisian media personality who shall remain nameless, and whose role is far from being clear. He just wants to bring people together. It was he who offered Ghannouchi his services for this meeting in Paris and mobilized the private jet of a well-known Tunisian businessman to transport the participants. The journey was made with discretion to the point of misleading the most-informed people at Tunis’s airport.

The only one who disclosed the secret is Abdellatif Mekki, who had to justify why the meeting with Houcine Abassi on Aug. 14 was canceled. He was severely reprimanded by Ghannouchi through an official statement denying that the Ennahda head was traveling. We now know that the denial was false.

The principle of the Paris deal between the two "enemies" is to "elect" Essebsi as president of the republic with more important prerogatives than the current ones. He will be heading Tunisia until the next elections, as he did in 2011. Ennahda will not leave power and Laarayedh will remain prime minister.

Laarayedh does not inspire confidence, particularly since he has constantly interfered in the security file. Thus, he will be assisted by a deputy [prime minister] for security affairs, who is likely to be Lazhar Akremi of Nidaa Tounes. As for the management of the economic affairs, Laarayedh will be supported by a second deputy in charge of these matters. This scenario guarantees immunity to some members of Ennahdha who have things to hide.

Ben Jaafar, having always demonstrated a willingness to bring all opponents closer, will stay at his post. He is close to and has the confidence of both Essebsi and Ghannouchi. But the ANC will have fewer prerogatives. And the adoption of any controversial or divisive law will be avoided.

Marzouki has no more influence and everyone agrees that he should have never occupied that post. His camp has always sown discord and has never ceased to advocate exclusion. Tunisia doesn’t need this right now. So he will be ejected, and so will his ministers, none of whom have displayed particular skill.

Other parties in the National Salvation Front (notably Massar, the Democratic Alliance and al-Joumhouri) will be asked to be “wise” and contribute to the success of the democratic transition. The Islamists,  — who people are always criticizing and trying to exclude — will be asked to join the building effort. Everybody is aware that we are condemned to live together and certainly no one is seeking to exclude Ennahda from the political landscape.

But two unknowns remain: Hamma Hammami and Houcine Abassi. Has Ghannouchi put sticks in their wheels or will they be included in the deal? Were they aware of the Paris meeting? Or were they surprised, just as the overwhelming majority of observers were? According to our information, both Hammami and Abassi had some knowledge about the initiative and Essebsi had asked them to do nothing until the outcome of the meeting is known. At this stage, the outcome looks positive. We should note that the leader of the Popular Front and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) secretary-general have not exactly been rising in stature over the past four days. So much so that Abassi is suspected of “deflating” in front of the Islamists. He has said that he will never be the “Tunisian Sisi,” thus excluding any move that may lead to a coup.

The deal holds several benefits to Islamists and to the democrats. The two parties will monitor each other because they don’t trust each other. The first thinks that the deal will give them immunity and allow them to avoid the nightmarish Egyptian scenario, thus avoiding all the hostile campaigns disparaging their work. Moreover, knowing the infighting in Nidaa Tounes, the Islamists are betting that Essebsi’s party will implode amid a war among its own aspirants.

For the democrats, they think that being in the government during the electoral campaign will give them at least a 5-point boost during the elections.

For Essebsi, the deal undercuts Hamed Karoui and allows Essebsi to calmly prepare his “boys” for the next election. It remains to be seen whether the deal will clear the field for Essebsi’s heir. But he is aware that once in power, he can only increase his popularity by carefully avoiding CPR’s and Ettakatol’s mistakes.

The problem now for Ghannouchi and Essebsi is how to make their popular bases accept this “cohabitation” after months of mutual insults and invective. Some have sworn to exclude Nidaa Tounes. Others have sworn to exclude the Islamists. Some have promised gallows and lynching, others, prisons and torture.

During his press conference on Aug. 15, Ghannouchi’s attitude was the beginning of the psychological preparation of the popular bases. He said that his party will not leave power and that Laarayedh will remain at his post. That promise was seen as an escalation. Once the bases and the leaders are reassured about their future, and by avoiding the worst, Ghannouchi thinks he can make them accept anything.

For Essebsi, it is a different story. He will find it difficult to make his supporters accept him wearing the much-maligned suit that Ettakatol wore. For the democrats, it is out of the question that the Islamists stay in power. The pill will be hard to swallow and we are starting to notice the start of a hostile campaign against Essebsi. They are accusing him of putting his interests above those of the nation, given that he is already reputed to want the presidency at all costs. It is a post that he already negotiated in 2011, but that escaped him in favor of Marzouki, who Essebsi considers highly incompetent.

But Nidaa Tounes’ leaders reject that allegation and swear that there is no deal and will never be one. “We don’t aspire to a post at this time. We have always rejected this option,” said a Nidaa Tounes official. Another official added that Nidaa Tounes will not risk harming its image by associating with Ennahdha. That official believes that such an association may cost them dearly in the elections and among their base. He cites the CPR and Ettakatol as examples.

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you want to make peace with an enemy, one must work with that enemy and that enemy becomes your partner.” Can Essebsi convince his troops of that? At the time of this writing, anything is possible. Just as the escalation in Egypt may result in civil war, a peace in the Ghannouchi-Essebsi style may lead to the Islamists staying in power.

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Found in: opposition, tunisia, protest, monsef marzouki, ennahda
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