A protracted political crisis that has threatened to derail the democratic transition initiated after the downfall of Tunisia’s entrenched autocratic regime in January 2011 appears to be headed toward a peaceful resolution. However, tensions between secular and religious political forces, stoked by the assassinations of two prominent secular politicians in the space of less than six months, are still running quite high.

Consequently, there is a clear potential for outbreaks of politically motivated conflict or other complications. This could bring the transition to a halt.

On October 5, the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement, which heads the interim coalition government, and the National Salvation Front (NSF), a bloc of 18 smaller secular opposition parties, signed off on an agreement under which Prime Minister Ali Larayedh’s Cabinet will step down. This action is in favor on an independent caretaker regime that will oversee preparations for presidential and legislative elections in 2014.

According to the timeline, the caretaker regime is to be in place no more than three weeks after the initiation of a national dialogue that finally commenced on October 25. In addition, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) is to complete the process of drafting and approving a new constitution within a similar time frame, thereby establishing a basis for appointing election officials and scheduling elections.

Political stability will continue to hinge on the secular parties’ willingness to tolerate Islamist participation.

There is some basis for optimism that a fresh crisis can be avoided down the road. In contrast to the situation that preceded the forced removal of Egypt’s Islamist president in early July, Ennahda’s leaders appear to be genuinely committed to the goal of pluralist democracy. And although it made an effort, the opposition failed to galvanize a mass movement in support of its demand for the government’s immediate resignation.

But even if Tunisia does not go the way of Egypt, where secular parties have consented to the derailment of that country’s democratic transition in exchange for the removal of an elected Islamist administration by means of a bloodless coup, long-term political stability will continue to hinge on the secular parties’ willingness to tolerate Islamist participation in (if not control of) a future government.

The division of the secular vote among dozens of smaller parties enabled Ennahda to establish itself as the dominant force in the NCA. This occurred despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of voters backed secular parties.

Acknowledging that handicap, several secular parties have sought to overcome it by combining their forces. The trend toward the consolidation of secular political forces creates the potential for the emergence of a non-Islamist counterpart that can challenge Ennahda for legislative dominance in future elections.

However, a shared secular perspective might not be a strong enough glue to hold the new alliances together. The various secular parties occupy positions all along the ideological spectrum, and differences between leftists and conservatives on matters of policy could prove to be more powerful than their shared goal of keeping the Islamists out of power.

All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume that Ennahda will continue to be an influential political force as long as the party remains free to compete for power in elections. A key political risk going forward is the danger that some secular forces will attempt to impose restrictions on the Islamists’ ability to compete, or will seek to undermine, by extra-constitutional means, the ability of any Islamist-led administration to govern effectively.

In either case, the threat of increased polarization that leads to chronic—and perhaps violent—internal unrest would be high.

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The PRS Group
About The Author The PRS Group
The PRS Group is a leading global provider of political and country risk analysis and forecasts, covering 140 countries. Based on proprietary, quantitative risk models, the firm's clientele includes financial institutions, multilateral agencies, and trans-national firms.




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