Democracy Lab

Embracing Enemies in Tunisia

Tunisia's main political forces have agreed on a deal to shore up the political middle and undermine extremists. That could be a crucial milestone on the path to democracy. The first in our series of Lab Reports on Tunisia.

On May 1, Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly approved a measure that could well prove to be one of the key milestones of the country's transition to democracy. In the course of their deliberations over a new electoral law, the members of the assembly voted down a bill that would have barred former senior members of the government and ruling party of ex-President Ben Ali from running in future elections. Had it passed, the exclusion law would not have necessarily changed the balance of power, since few former senior officials are actually expected to run for seats in next elections. But by depriving them of their full civil rights, the law would have transformed veterans of the old regime into political martyrs, discrediting the two leading parties' claims of commitment to an inclusive transition.

Democracy Lab's In-Depth Reports on Tunisia

  • LAB REPORT 1: Embracing Enemies in Tunisia, by Oussama Romdhani
  • LAB REPORT 2: Put Tunisians Back to Work, by Emmanuel Martin and Dalibor Rohac
  • LAB REPORT 3: A Tale of Two Decrees, by Fadil Aliriza

Such a development would have also rekindled particularly painful memories for the leaders of the two main parties. Beji Caid Essebsi, the head of the secularist Nida Tounes Party (the "Call of Tunisia"), confesses to being still "traumatized" by the experience of violent strife in the mid-1950s, when sympathizers of then-President Habib Bourguiba and his rival Salah Ben Youssef engaged in bloody strife across Tunisian towns and villages. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party, says that he is unwilling to inflict the pain of exclusion on any group of Tunisians the way previous regimes inflicted it on Islamists after independence.

In the end, the majority of legislators voted against the exclusion law, giving a much-needed push to Tunisia's halting process of political reconciliation -- a process that has been aptly described by Kamel Morjane, a centrist politician, as the sine qua non for a successful transition. That boost is much needed. The transitional justice law hurriedly approved last December is legally flawed and does not provide a sound path toward reconciliation. Unless amended, it could spell trouble for the transition, believes Essebsi.

For the past three years, since the start of the uprising that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship, Tunisia has been struggling to overcome the divide between proponents of the Islamist-led government and their secularist opponents. The two long years following the 2011 elections, which produced a coalition government led by Islamists, were marked by escalating hostilities between the rival camps. It took a number of serious incidents, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012, the assassination of two leftist politicians, bloody attacks on the army and National Guard troops, and other terrorist acts, for the contending parties to realize the country was sliding toward civil war.

At first, the Ennahda-led coalition tried to cling to its electoral legitimacy. The Islamists did not need long, however, to realize that the political landscape had changed since their accession to power in 2011. Ennahda found itself facing two new opposing blocs: the "Union for Tunisia," with Essebsi's Nida Tounes at its core, and the leftist "Popular Front," around Hamma Hammami's Workers' Party. The risk of civil strife as a result of mounting domestic tensions, compounded by the negative example of the Muslim Brotherhood's attempts at hegemonic rule in Egypt, eventually convinced Ennahda to concede that it should leave power.

In the last few months, zero-sum politics have given way to consensus-based politics, especially between Ennahda and Nida Tounes. In October 2013, face-to-face negotiations between Essebsi and Ghannouchi smoothed the way for the resumption of a national dialogue between all political parties. The dialogue took place under the aegis of the country's powerful trade unions as well as the business federation, the country's main human rights advocacy group, and the lawyers' union. Compromises allowed for the adoption of the constitution and the replacement of the ruling coalition by a technocratic government. For the majority of the politically exhausted population it meant the end of partisan squabbling, largely perceived as the main obstacle to stability and economic recovery.

Along the way, both of the leading parties have moved toward the center. The Islamists of Ennahda have distanced themselves from the Salafists while reigning in their own hard-liners. Nida Tounes has been successful in moderating the stands of its leftist allies. (Rejecting exclusion was a natural decision for Essebsi's party, considering the predominance of former members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally, RCD, the ruling party of Ben Ali, in its rank-and-file.)

The transition's chances dramatically improved when the two main camps, the "Islamists" and the "modernists," agreed to end their "identity wars." The two groups managed to reach agreement over the constitution last January only when they moved away from their previously irreconcilable positions over the role of sharia law and the status of women. Once Islamists stopped supporting the demands of their ultraconservative fringe, compromise became possible on both issues. The approved version of the constitution thus ultimately accommodated both a commitment to Arab-Islamic heritage and openness to foreign cultures. The final text upheld the status of Islam in the country as stipulated by the 1959 Constitution. But it also affirmed the notions of the "civil state" and gender equality. Secularists and liberals overcame their recurring nightmares about an Islamist takeover of society. Ever since leaving government, Islamist figures have been at pains to further reassure urban, middle-class Tunisians. Ennahda "has adopted a Tunisian instead of an Islamist lexicon," says Rafaa Ben Achour, a constitutional law expert and leading member of Nida Tounes. Veteran Tunisia expert Francis Ghiles asserts that Ghannouchi has, since last fall, "behaved like he was being coached by an American consultant to sound like a European Christian Democrat."

Zitoun defends the change in his party as a normal evolution. "We are not a static movement or a Sufi sect," he says. But many of the "modernists" see that change as only tactical and believe Ennahda has yet to abandon its ambitions to "Islamize" society. Columnist Ziyed Krichen sees Ennahda in a stage between being a seventies' type "Muslim Brotherhood movement" and " a civil democratic formation akin to Christian democratic parties" that is still to take shape.

The May 1 vote demonstrates the extent to which the main political parties have fundamentally reassessed their priorities. Having stared into the abyss last summer, both Ennahda and Nida Tounes leaders now seem to consider stability and civic peace as crucial for the remainder of the transition. Had the proponents of the "exclusionist" position carried the vote, the likelihood of turbulence during the next stage of the transition would have been much greater.

Long-term stability will elude Tunisia unless its people and leaders can find their way to a new concept of authority that balances functional state institutions with respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. The country's citizens have been ready for a freer environment for decades. As a former government official, I can say that it took Ben Ali barely a week after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi to admit -- at least privately -- that restrictive policies were untenable. Ironically, it was the hyper-concentration of power before the revolution that convinced Ben Ali's supporters of the irreversibility of revolutionary change as soon as the former president left the scene. It was this awareness, some observers believe, that spared Tunisia the violence that beset other Arab Spring countries. According to a recent scholarly study on the fall of autocratic regimes, the less violence that occurs during the collapse of such a regime, the better the chances of democratization.

Adjustment to the abrupt shift from hyper-centralized government to unstructured freedom will still need time. The majority preference for "a democratic even if unstable government" has slightly increased since last year (from 52 percent to 53 percent), but no less than 40 percent of those surveyed still said they favored "an authoritarian regime."

Nostalgia for the predictability of authoritarian rule is explainable. Tunisia has yet to embark on anything resembling a South African-style truth and reconciliation process, and as a result Tunisians have experienced only a systematic demonization of the old regime. The public has never truly understood how the Ben Ali political system functioned and malfunctioned in the past. As the deteriorating security situation and falling standards of living discredited Tunisia's new governments, it was hardly surprising that some people on the fringes of society sought solutions to their predicaments in previous eras. The desire to seek comfort in the past will dissipate, presumably, as the transition advances. But comparing nostalgia for authoritarian times in "Arab Spring" countries to the mood in Eastern European nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall is misleading. Former communist nations in Europe never suffered from the shallowness of democratic culture, the exacerbation of regional and tribal conflicts, or the specific socio-economic difficulties that face post-authoritarian Arab societies today.

After overcoming the initial doctrinal and organizational confusion caused by the 2011 revolution, the state still has to adapt to new security challenges. Over the past six months, the security agencies and the judiciary have taken a more vigorous attitude in the fight against terrorism, which has done much to restore the credibility of the state on this score. (The photo above shows a member of the Tunisian special forces standing guard outside the National Constituent Assembly.) But security concerns continue to pose a serious challenge to Tunisia's transition. In late May, terrorists staged a brazen attack on the minister of the interior's own home in Kasserine, deeply shocking the public. The government will need time and effort to overcome past mistakes and garner resources.

If anti-terrorism policies before the revolution did not adequately take into consideration the regional dynamics of the problem, the attitude of governments after the revolution waivered --for far too long -- between naiveté, imprudence, and outright mistakes. A glaring example was the 2011 decision to pardon hundreds of prisoners previously indicted on terrorism charges. This slippery slope led straight to the September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and the assassination of leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013. These acts of terror, which exacerbated political divides, dealt a near-fatal blow to the transition process.

The threat still posed by Ansar al-Sharia cannot be dismissed. Dismantling the remaining outposts of its support network will be arduous. A senior official at the prime minister's office recently put the number of associations suspected of abetting extremism at 157. Fallout from Libya and Syria might haunt Tunisia for years to come. The authorities will definitely have to worry about Tunisian jihadists abroad as they start heading home. These include approximately 2,000 Tunisian fighters in Syria. Civil strife in Libya could jeopardize the stability of Tunisia even more than the already incurred loss of jobs and business opportunities there.

To no small measure, stability will depend on the ability of future governments to impulse economic growth and offset the socio-economic imbalances, which had been left to linger for decades. Ennahda's withdrawal from power enabled the formation in January of a new, non-partisan government headed by former businessman Mehdi Jomaa, a development that encouraged cautious optimism. Even so, today 48 percent of Tunisians still believe the country is "headed in the wrong direction." The majority of respondents cite economic and employment challenges as their main concern.

Most socio-economic problems will require medium- to long-term solutions and a few unpopular measures, as well. A 2013 Working Paper from the International Monetary Fund recognized that "weak transitional governments" may find it difficult to implement measures ensuring growth and stability of the economy. For this reason, politicians of various hues believe tackling the complex problems of the economy may require a broad coalition government for 5 to 10 years after elections.

Successive governments have found it difficult to put an end to illegal strikes and work stoppages, even though disruption of production has had serious economic consequences. The interruption of phosphate production in the southwest's mining basin, for instance, has caused the state to lose nearly 1.5 billion dollars in revenue, as output dropped from 8 million tons in 2010 to 3 million tons in 2013. Public spending is no longer an option when it comes to appeasing social pressures. While previous governments increased price subsidies by 270 percent between 2010 and 2013, the current government is considering cutting them. Public sector hiring has ceased being an option, even if unemployment is currently at above 15 percent. The projected GDP growth rates of 2.8 percent in 2014 and 4.2 percent in 2015 will not be sufficient to absorb youth unemployment, and even less that of university graduates (situated today at nearly 32 percent).

The issue of development imbalances between regions of the country, which was among the main catalysts of the revolution, continues to pose a challenge to stability. A source of particular concern is the worsening unemployment problem for university graduates in a number of regions. Between 2010 and 2013, the rates of graduate unemployment in the governorates of Sidi Bouzid and Kebili have respectively increased from 41 percent to 57 percent and from 42 percent to 60.8 percent.

Despite Tunisia's traditional narrative of religious and ethnic homogeneity, the problem of regional disparities might bring to the surface a latent situation of unsuspected heterogeneity. For Tunisians, it took the fraying of the security institutions and the de-inhibition of the media to discover that tribal loyalties are alive and well.

Economic prospects will eventually depend on the strength of Europe's recovery and its willingness to help, as well as on other outside sources of support, including the United States. The international conference scheduled for next September to promote foreign investment in Tunisia could be a step in the right direction provided the event produces more tangible results than flowery speeches about the "birthplace of the Arab Spring."

But despite all the daunting challenges, the odds remain in favor of Tunisia's consolidation of democracy. The country's traditions of moderation and pragmatism, its human development achievements since independence, and the international sympathy it has enjoyed since the revolution are great assets for the road ahead. More than anything else, however, the final outcome will hinge on the ability of politicians to see what they all have to gain from a true consolidation of the democratic transition.

Top Image: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Graphic Designer: Chloe Chik

Background images 1 & 2: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Background image 3: KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Venezuela’s Glass Revolution

In 2013, Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution survived the death of Hugo Chávez. Now his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, confronts his toughest challenge yet: an economy on the brink. The latest in our series of Lab Reports on Venezuela.

In early December, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect mayors and local council members. After a disputed presidential election and months of economic hardship, many observers were predicting that the opposition would win the popular vote. Instead, the government's forces won, solidifying President Nicolás Maduro's hold on power.

Yet if Maduro's grip is solid, why is Moody's downgrading Venezuela's bonds? Why is Venezuela's bond spread the highest among emerging markets? The answer is simple: The Maduro regime, like glass, might appear strong, but it's also brittle, increasingly vulnerable to the sharp shocks that are likely to come from a complicated political situation and a rapidly weakening economy.

On election day on December 8, as I rode a motorcycle taxi through the winding and bullet-scarred streets of Petare, one of Caracas' poorest slums, I asked my driver, a local resident, what he thought of President Maduro. "Nobody likes him," he said. "They loved Chávez, but they think this guy is a fake."

Everywhere I asked during my tour, I got more or less the same answer. The comments from residents were an obviously biased sample of conventional wisdom from local opposition activists, but they also reflected reality: the opposition's incumbent mayor won re-election by eight points.

It would be a mistake to conclude -- as many analysts did in the days prior to the election -- that discontent is the overall sentiment in Venezuela. In a neighboring municipality, one with demographics markedly similar to Petare, the chavista candidate romped to a twenty-point victory.

The truth about Venezuela is that it remains a country deeply divided along many lines. It is a nation of stark contrasts, where urban, middle-class voters have apparently decided to abandon the Revolution for good, but where many poorer and rural voters hold steadfast loyalty to chavismo -- for now. The nation is divided roughly in half, but the chavista half appears to be slightly larger, ensuring a solid yet potentially vulnerable hold on all levers of power.

When Hugo Chávez died last March after fourteen years in power, the crowds that turned up at his funeral were like nothing Venezuela had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people paraded in front of his casket or joined the funeral parade. After such a massive, unscripted show of emotion, people naturally expected Maduro, Chávez's appointed heir, to coast to an overwhelming victory.

But in a few short weeks, something surprising happened. Maduro proved to be a hapless performer on the campaign trail -- awkward in tone, frequently off-message, and vacillating between grief for the fallen president and enthusiasm for his own candidacy. In spite of this, he managed to eke out a victory over his main opponent, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, but only by a measly 1.2 percentage points.

According to the official version of events, at least. Capriles, who had lost a national election to the ailing Chávez a year earlier, quickly demanded a recount. He has alleged numerous irregularities, accusing the Chávez camp of "stealing" the election, and has so far refused to recognize Maduro as president.

Things did not go better for Maduro in the months that followed. As the economy began slowing down and scarcity began to spread, opinion polls pointed to large numbers of Venezuelans saying the country was headed in the wrong direction.

In the meantime, businessmen with close ties to the government began buying up TV and radio stations. This meant the opposition had trouble getting their message out, something that opinion polls were also capturing: Maduro's popularity was hurting, but the opposition wasn't gaining from it. "In the last weeks of the campaign," an opposition political operator who spoke on condition of anonymity told me, "dozens of our ads were rejected by TV stations for no apparent reason."

Then, in the last few weeks before the election, came Daka. Daka is the Venezuelan version of Best Buy, a large chain of stores specializing in appliances and consumer electronics. With a month to go before the mayoral elections, Maduro, in a burst of populism that would have made the late Chávez proud, ordered significant cuts in the prices of all appliances, then invited Venezuelans to throng stores such as Daka and leave "nothing on the shelves."

The move seems to have been the game changer the government needed. The government won the popular vote, and while it lost most of the large cities, it retained control in many medium and smaller cities. As one local pollster put it, "populism ... is popular."

Maduro has outfoxed the opposition. No elections are scheduled for the next two years. Does this mean that his grip on power is firm? It depends very much  on what happens to the economy.

The vulnerability of Venezuela's economy is not an accident. Instead, it is an essential characteristic of Hugo Chávez's petro-state economic model. Distilled to its essence, this model took a dramatic surge in commodity prices and created a system of subsidies, price controls, and other distortions that is simply too expensive to maintain. In the process, oil production has suffered, and the government has run out of money. It is even considering mortgaging its last remaining gold reserves.

The Venezuelan government gives away gasoline for practically nothing. It has set an artificially cheap price for foreign currency which, combined with a ruthless attack on private property, has meant the death knell for scores of private companies. The government has also decided it wants to control the prices of everything that is produced by, sold in, or imported into the country -- everything from labor to industrial parts, from toilet paper to women's underwear. The end result is ever-spreading scarcity, combined with a plethora of black markets.

This web of subsidies and price distortions can be sustained as long as you have the money for it; the USSR, after all, kept it going for several decades. With deep enough pockets, you can subsidize pretty much everything you want, and you can take over many industries by simply importing your way out of trouble. The problem for the Venezuelan government is that, despite high oil prices, it has run out of money.

Venezuela ran a budget deficit of 11 percent of GDP in 2012, according to Moody's. (Official government statistics are unreliable). It's quite possible that the 2013 budget deficit could hit 17 percent of GDP. China, long a bankroller of the Venezuelan Revolution, is beginning to cut back on its funding, insisting any future loans be managed by their own bureaucrats.

The government's cash crunch explains why there are lines to buy basic staples: there are fewer cheap dollars to give out, and the government is also being forced to start selling them at a higher price. The crunch has forced the government to print bolívares, the local currency, at an unprecedented pace. GDP growth has stalled, and the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean is forecasting a paltry 1 percent growth for next year. Inflation has risen sharply and is set to end this year at more than 50 percent. The government has even delayed publishing inflation numbers after Maduro complained about how they are calculated.

The paradox of chavismo is that it preaches communism and consumption at the same time. The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it requires a lot of funding. If oil prices were to surge, Venezuela could continue on this path. But if oil prices stay put or fall, tough decisions will be unavoidable -- leaving the system's constituents extremely unhappy.

Will people revolt if subsidies are cut? The likely answer is that no, they won't ... yet. The government controls almost all of the media, and voters are not yet linking their economic situation with the government's own policies. When TV and radio are constantly sending the message that the economic crisis is caused by others ("the Empire," "oligarchs," "the right wing," "the bourgeoisie," "the opposition"), you can buy some time before folks come at you with pitchforks. Then again, Venezuelans have taken to the streets before when faced with cuts in their subsidies. In 1989, in an event known as the "Caracazo," Venezuelans responded to fuel subsidy cuts with rioting and violence, essentially issuing a death sentence to the system that preceded Chávez. While it's impossible to predict when such a surge in discontent might repeat itself, there's certainly no reason to rule it out.

Then there's the role of the armed forces. Simón Bolívar once allegedly quipped that "Quito is a convent, Bogotá is a university, and Caracas ... is a military barrack." The quote highlights the importance of the military in Venezuelan society. The institution has played a pivotal role in Venezuelan history, and its influence on the outcome of any major political upheaval will be crucial.

Venezuela experienced military coup attempts in the 1960s, in the 1980s, twice in the 1990s, and in 2002. The common thread linking these is that they occurred in periods of relative crisis, be it political (the guerrilla wars of the 1960s or the instability of 2002) or economic (the dismantling of the welfare state of the late 1980s). Ever since 2002, things have been quiet in the armed forces, thanks in large part to Chávez's masterful military intuition. But if Venezuela goes into a full-mode economic crisis, how will the military act?

In order to assess this question, one has to ask who the military are, and what they are currently doing. In spite of Chávez's insistence that the military was "socialist and chavista," military sources in Caracas who spoke on condition of anonymity insist there are three groups within the military.

First are the "nationalists," those who are doing business in various government schemes and lining their pockets in the meantime. These are the officers that handle the ports, the import of food, much of the black market, and are even the main smugglers of gasoline across the border. The nationalists are corrupt, but they resent the Cuban influence inside the military -- reports say that Cuban intelligence have infiltrated the armed forces, with permission from the presidency. The main leader in this group is, allegedly, the president of the National Assembly and second in command in the Revolution, Lt. Col. Diosdado Cabello.

The second is the group of officers with links to the drug trade, some of whom have been targeted by the US government. How involved in drug smuggling are the Venezuelan armed forces? It is almost impossible to say, but the United Nations has stated that Venezuela has emerged as a major trafficking point in the last few years. Recently, The New York Times published a story on increased flight activity through Venezuelan territory, presumably linked to the drug trade.

Just last month an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris was discovered to be carrying 1.3 metric tons of cocaine in its luggage compartment, the largest single drug seizure in French history. It is hard to view these events as happening independently, particularly since the military handles all aspects of security in and around the airport where the Air France flight originated.

The third group within the military is the so-called "institutional" wing, professional officers who view the other two groups with contempt and who would like to see the armed forces restricted to a non-partisan, institutional role. It is impossible to judge how large this group is, since it (obviously) operates in the shadows. But the military analysts I consulted with insist it exists, and its size is not negligible.

It is difficult to overstate the involvement of the armed forces in all aspects of Venezuela's life. The Maduro administration continues to stack the top echelons of government with military figures. The president has also made it a point to regularly visit military garrisons, offering members of the armed forces all sorts of goodies, from a special Armed Forces Bank to a military TV channel. As his public acts in garrisons increase in frequency, it is not far-fetched to conclude that Maduro is nervously watching his military flank.

A severe economic downturn would hurt the military's pockets. A budget crunch could force the government to cut back on the lucrative arms deals enabled by the oil boom. An end to subsidies may put an end to the burgeoning black market. And there is now talk in Caracas about ending the nation's unaffordable gasoline subsidy, which the military thrives on.

How the military will respond to all this remains a mystery. Maduro may be able to navigate an economic downturn as long as the generals remain well-disposed, leaving him with some room to maneuver. Perhaps the loyalty of the armed forces to the chavista project is deeper than most suspect.

Or perhaps the economic crisis is the trigger that a segment of the armed forces could use as justification to act. When the armed forces have been so politicized and allowed to become corrupt, there is little institutional restraint to prevent a coup attempt. Judging by historical precedent, however, it seems as though an economic crisis would not, on its own, trigger them to act. An additional ingredient -- perhaps a deeper political crisis, or even an act of political violence -- would be necessary.

Regardless, it would be a tragedy were the Venezuelan story to take such a turn.

What, then, should we expect from Venezuela in 2014? With a relatively secure government, and with absolute control of the media and the institutions, it would seem as though Maduro's position is solid. As I have argued, this hides deep risks.

The key variable to watch is the price of oil. With oil selling at $100 a barrel, the Venezuelan government is barely making ends meet, yet it can continue to muddle along at this rate. Yes, inflation and the subsequent loss of purchasing power will continue unabated, but it could be years before Venezuelans begin blaming the government for it. If the price of oil surges, the government will find its economic model is affordable once again.

However, if the price of oil were to dip below, say, $80 a barrel for a prolonged period, Venezuelans will find their purchasing power severely diminished, forcing the government to change its model. Whether it can do so and avoid corresponding political turmoil remains to be seen. While other authoritarian governments (such as Zimbabwe and Cuba) have navigated deep economic crises, the Venezuelan opposition seems better positioned to reap the benefits of public discontent than its counterparts in those two countries.

As mentioned before, the bond markets now consider Venezuela to be the riskiest of all emerging markets, with premiums that surpass Greece or Argentina. A revolution where the key players hold all the cards but is still in desperate need of foreign financing, where the economy and the viability of the political system depend on the volatile price of a single commodity, is not a safe bet. The markets know this, and that is why, in spite of Maduro's grip on power, they don't solid. They know that, if oil prices take a prolonged dip, all bets are off on Venezuela's stability. In short, Venezuela's glass revolution is more vulnerable than it appears.