Crédit photo : AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID

By Moez Hababou,

On February 6, 2013, Chokri Belaid, the outspoken political opponent of Ennahdha was cowardly gunned down in front of his house. Three weeks later, it is however useful to re-visit the aftermath and one would almost gasp with admiration how the leading party Ennahdha managed to turn the situation around. The Troika, ruling government composed of Ennahda, CPR (Congress for the Republic), and Ettakatol, was in a very bad spot. The government was mired down into continuous bickering and public divisiveness between the three ruling parties, weak economics, high unemployment, a government reshuffling which was 6 months in the making, and a diminished legitimacy. Then, on February 6, 2013, the assassination of Chokri Belaid seemed to all but seal the end of the Troika. Over the following couple of weeks, Tunisians witnessed with astonishment a clash between Hamadi Jebali, who insisted to institute a ‘technocratic government’ made up of non-political competencies and that the reshuffling also involves the ministries of authorities (i.e. Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Defense), and Rached Ghannouchi who insisted that the ministries of authorities stay within the control of Ennahdha. As events unfolded, Hamadi Jebali didn’t get his wish, resigned as Head of Government, and shortly after, Ali Laarayedh, the previous embattled Minister of Interior, was selected to form a new government, which in all likelihood is likely to resemble the previous one.

It is interesting here to pause a second and try to analyze these dramatic events from a larger context. Prior to the assassination of Chokri Belaid, it became clear for Ennahdha that it would be difficult to impose the parliamentary regime, which is the most advantageous to her and that it will have eventually to accept the semi-presidential regime, which its partners in the troika (CPR and Ettakatol) seem to prefer. It then became important then to groom within the party an electable candidate who is likely to win at the next presidential elections. This candidate needs to look presidential, transcend party’s considerations, and put the country first. He needs to be a unifier, patriot, a true statesman.

Moreover, this candidate needs to prove that he can say no to Ennahdha for the good of the country, that he doesn’t care about power and that he’s willing to forego his chance to become president for the bigger good of the country. Such candidate may be able to draw enough support from opposition parties to convince them to form with him a government of independents. This breakup in the opposition parties may in itself weaken any electoral alliances that opposition parties may form and, hence, hand to Ennahdha the win at the next legislative elections.

This is the genius trap that Ennahdha has in fact set up immediately after the Belaid assassination. If the government of technocrats succeeds, it can claim most of the credit for it as the ‘dream team’ assembled and led by Ennahdha’s independent candidate, who single-handedly saved the country from the abyss. If the technocrats fail, this proves beyond doubt, that the situation in Tunisia is just hopeless and that no one can bring immediate solutions to the high unemployment, jumping inflation, and grim economic outlook, not even the dream team.

Meanwhile, the opposition, aware or not of this political maneuver, can either take the bait or jointly refuse to shake the hand of this savior, patriot who is willing to work with them, who is promising fair elections as soon as possible, and who’s putting the country first. Suddenly, the opposition parties would look like the enemies of the revolution, wear the ‘un-patriotic uniform’ and the ones who are willing to throw the country under the bus for cold political calculations.

So how did the opposition parties react? They all failed miserably in this trap, hailed Mr. Jebali as the savior, agreed to be on the negotiations table without any real prerequisites, and played along the musical chair game until, as expected, the ‘Majlis Ecchoura’ (Consultative Council) of Ennahdha declared his opposition to Mr. Jebali’s initiative nixing the idea.

Meanwhile, the initial popular outrage which followed the assassination of Belaid has largely dissipated. Some figures indicate that up to 1.4 million people attended or celebrated the funerals across Tunisia. Hamadi Jebali has emerged from the whole episode as a strong Statesman and plausible presidential candidate that Ennahdha needs for the presidential elections. All this is happening despite a poor record in the office as head of the government. Ali Laarayedh, in spite of the widespread insecurity, numerous incidents including the attack on the US Embassy, is rewarded to be selected as the new Head of the Government. Ennahdha has indeed very skillfully navigated through this difficult period and can now rule with legitimacy again.

What could have been done differently? Opposition parties could have asked for tangible guarantees that the technocratic government will have the means to succeed. They could have required the dissolution of the so-called ‘Leagues of the Protection of the revolution’ which are the de-facto militia enforcers for Ennahdha on the grounds. They could have demanded a clear mandate of the so-called ‘technocrat’ government, which is basically a caretaker until the next elections.

Now, the tides seem to have turned, and the liberals wasted a golden chance to demand real reforms and force changes to the current government.

So since it is Oscar season, I would cast my vote for the Academy Awards nominations in the politicians’ category as follows:

  • Best Leading Actor: Hamadi Jebali;
  • Best Supporting Actor/actress: opposition parties;
  • Best original screenplay: Rached Ghannouchi;
  • Best Director: I leave it to the wild imagination of conspiracy theorists.