As they say “war is the continuation of politics through different means”, the national dialogue in Tunisia was, in conclusion, a continuation of a political monologue that lasted for too much time.
Before the stroke of time to declare the arrival of midnight of December 14, 2013, the national dialogue process finally revealed the name of the long awaited Prime Minister; namely Al-Mahdi Jomaa. The man’s name (in Arabic) perfectly describes Tunisians’ situation and hopes! For too long, the search for an independent prime minister to manage the coming transitional period has turned into some sort of “waiting for Godot” or “waiting for Al-Mahdi\Savior”! Tunisians, all that time, have been hoping for a Prime Minister who will represent agreement among all parties that allows them all to join hands in a bid to be ready for what is to come. The outcome of the national dialogue has its supporters and critics. Tunisians are, however, getting increasingly curious to know the résumé of the candidate prime minister and wondering whether or not he is capable of implementing the tasks decided by the Quartet sponsoring the dialogue. Critics have strong logic behind their position; namely the fact that Al-Mahdi has been the Industry Minister in the current Troika (*) (coalition) under Ali Al-Areedh (the current Prime Minister) since last March.
It is possible then to say that the prolonged National dialogue Process (that turned into a soap opera) has, in essence, resulted in a cabinet of Al-Nahda Movement succeeding the current Al-Nhda Movement Cabinet!
This statement may be premature, but in light of the apparent facts so far, it still stands, as long as the solution to the failures by the current cabinet came through appointing one of its own members as the new prime minister.
That conclusion has been preceded by a long history of sessions, negotiations and agreements (declared and hidden). It has also been preceded by leaks about other candidates such as Ahmed Al-Misteeri, Mohamed Al-Nasser and Mustafa Al-Filali (all of them are from the era of late president Al-Habeeb Bo Rqaiba)!
It is obvious that the race against time which started December 4 and lasted till the last breath of December 14 has been played be several players. However, the parties mostly concerned with the race and its outcome were not the players themselves as the Quartet (Sponsor and Judge of the National Dialogue). Therefore, we may understand the difficult corner the Quartet – target of praise sometimes and criticism at other times -- has been pushed into. Moreover, we may understand the position of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW) in particular, as it has turned into record time from a huge popular pressure party to a mere mediator or sponsor as repeatedly stated in political speeches now. When the final round of the national dialogue hit a dead end, many have been waiting for the declaration of the dialogue as a failure and the withdrawal of the National Initiative and Roadmap, and then deciding on other forms of struggle to topple the current Troika cabinet and replace it with a cabinet of independent experts. That desperate move, however, would have meant walking completely into the unknown, with no guarantees who comes out on top. So, the absence of solutions pushed the Quartet to take the final path; namely playing the “time card”. That’s why the Quartet gave the dialogue parties full 10 days to reach a national consensus on the prime minister identity.
The deadline was to end on Saturday December 14. During the 10 days, each team have been meeting with their group to evaluate the previous rounds and try to read into the coming ones, in addition to preparing precautionary plans to be ready just in case! Thing is the deadline was not wasted in vain, as Tunisians spent it reading a book that “stole the headlines” even before it officially the shelves! The black book is “Propaganda Organization under Bin Ali Rule”, recently issued by the Department of Media and Communications of the Presidency!
While opponents of President Munsif Al-Marzouqi were busy criticizing and even mocking him, he and his advisors have been going through the archives the Presidential Palace until they put together damaging files for all those outside the palace. Despite his very limited authorities, the president could put together files that could hurt all elements of political circles (ruling and opposition), civil society activists and media persons.
The Need for Dialogue:
It is worth mentioning here that the demand for an independent cabinet of experts has always been associated with every Tunisian crisis since October 2012. At that time (October 2012), the opposition considered the Troika cabinet and the National Constituent Assembly are without legitimacy. It has even been a demand by some ruling parties as mentioned by Marzouqi himself following the events of Al-Rash (*) in Silianah in October 2013. Later, Marzouqi denied that he meant it! Ex-prime minister Hammadi Al-Jibali made the same demand during his speech the day Shukry Blai’d was assassinated (February 6, 2013). The demand was then raised politically, publicly and during rallies after the assassination of the late Mohamed Al-Ibrahaimi (July 25, 2013), by the parties of the Salvation Front (*),the General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW), the Tunisian Syndicate for the Defense of Human Rights and the Lawyers’ Syndicate.
The formation of a National Salvation Cabinet (as called by the Salvation Front), or Cabinet of Experts (as called by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW) and other parties of the Quartet), or a non-partisan cabinet (as called by member of the ruling Troika the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties Party), are all different names for one solution! Whenever the country is crippled by a devastating political crisis, the demand for an independent cabinet surfaces. The vastness of parties demanding this now is only an indication that this is the only way to solving crisis and putting the transition period on the road to success. There is almost a consensus that the transition process and the country as a whole could never be hostage to a cabinet led by Al-Nahda Movement!
Since July 29,2013, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW) and other sponsoring organizations have presented an initiative to solve the crisis. The opposition held a sit-in in “Bardo” Square opposite the HQs of the National Constituent Assembly, demanding the dismissal of Al-Nahda-led cabinet and the assembly itself. The National Constituent Assembly’s sessions were suspended until all political parties sign a detailed roadmap to reactivate the first initiative. Since then, all signees joined the national dialogue, but with no results worth mentioning. It seemed that each party praises the dialogue separately, but once all parties sit together, historic differences speak louder!
The dialogue went on and on, exceeding the initial deadline mentioned in the roadmap (4 weeks to finish the two courses; the constituent one that covers the constitution, agreeing on the parliamentary laws and formation of the Higher Electoral Independent Committee, and the governmental course that covers the formation of an independent cabinet of experts and the resignation of the current government). The dialogue actually turned into monologue or discussions among deaf parties and did not move an inch ahead until December 4, when the dialogue was suspended for 10 days, as a last step before declaring it total failure!
The Quartet & the Dialogue.. Supporters & Opponents:
It is a fact that the sponsors of the national dialogue are more qualified than any other party to shoulder the most dangerous responsibility; namely reaching an agreement among opponents to break the political deadlock threatening catastrophic scenarios. These sponsors are:
1- The General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW). It enjoys a vast base of workers.
2- The Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts Organization. It is in charge of labor, investment and industrial development.
3- The Tunisian Union for the Defense of Human Rights. It is a symbol in the field as it is the first organization of its kind in the Arab World and in Africa. It has also reserved its independence during the eras of Bo Rqaiba and Bin Ali.
4- The Lawyers’ Union. It is considered an icon of struggle before and after January 14, 2011.
The quartet represents a broad spectrum of Tunisians under the umbrella of the "Salvation Front" (parties and gatherings), and components from outside the Front. وفي حين تتواتر تصريحات رموز "حركة النهضة" في التنديد بما يسمّونه عدم حياديّة لدى الرباعي الراعي فإنّ المواقف الرسميّة للحركة تنسجم مع شريكها في الحكم "حزب التكتّل" في تخويل الرباعي للقيام بدوره الوطنيّ في التقريب بين الفرقاء السياسيّين. While frequent statements by the symbols of Al-Nahda Movement denounce what they call a lack of neutrality on the part of the Quartet, the official positions of the Movement is consistent with its partner in the ruling Troika (the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties Party) in authorizing the Quartet to play its role in bringing together the national political parties.
On the other hand, the known oأمّا المعارضون المُعلَنون لمبادرة الرباعي ولما يترتّب على الحوار الوطنيّ فهم أصناف منها:pponents of the Quartet’s initiative and the outcome of the national dialogue in general, are of various natures, including:
• Parties and blocks represented in the National Constituent Assembly and others not represented; (The Congress for the Republic Party, whose honorary president is Marzouqi himself. Movement and Fulfillment – dissident from the Congress for the Republic Party, and headed by Abdul-Raouf Al-Ayyadi. The Democratic Current Party, dissident from the Congress for the Republic Party, and headed by Mohamed Abbou. Stream of Love Party; heir of the former People’s Petition for Freedom, Justice and Development, headed by the London-based Mohamed Al-Hashimi, in addition to other MPs who formed parties resulting from the so-called partisan tourism.
• The National Council for the Support of the Revolution: It is a newly formed entity that comprises the Movement and Fulfillment headed by Abdul-Raouf Al-Ayyadi, Liberation Party of Reda Bilhaj, Sawa’id (Arms) Movement (A youth movement affiliated with the government and is represented by blogger Yassin Al-Ayyari), the Salafist Current (Formerly known as the organization of Sharai’ah Supporters – now banned), Muslim Brotherhood-Tunisia branch (An affiliate of Al-Nahda Movement – previously denied by the Movement), Reform Party (Salafist), Asala (Originality) Party (Salafist), Freedom and Justice Society (a rights organization, close to Al-Nahda Movement), Tunisian Labor Organization (A workers organization supported by Al-Nahda Movement and the Congress Party to challenge the monopoly of labors’ affairs by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW)), Tunisian Front for Islamic Societies (a gathering of Salafist religious societies, some of which are loyal to Al-Nahda Movement), The Coordinators of Al-Qasba 4 (Pro government and Al-Nahda Movement, who called for a sit-in in Al-Qasba (Sfax) for the support of legitimacy and to pressure the government not to cave in to opposition demands).
In an atmosphere that complicated and infested with mistrust, divisions and conflict between the electoral legitimacy or the power of consensus, the Quartet has been trying to work under pressures from all parties; the public who are fed up with politicians divisions and conflicts, to high hopes and expectations from a dialogue that had months ago one goal only, namely to depose Al-Nahda Movement from power and instate an independent cabinet of experts.
The following developments were out right before the end of deadline:
•One of Al-Nahda Movement leaders states that the movement will be forced to follow other scenarios if the Quartet-sponsored dialogue fails. Some understood the statement as a possibility to transfer the national dialogue from the umbrella of the Quartet to that of the presidency. That possibility was further enhanced by the latest statements by Marzouqi resenting the suspension of the dialogue or the frequent messages by the Congress Party members to the effect that they were ready to enter a dialogue with no prior conditions in case the October 23rd arrangements – including the General Authorities Law, Constituent Assembly’s authorities and those of the Presidency – are kept intact. Others understood the early warning statement as a message to opponents – especially the Popular Front – to the effect that bilateral understandings between the two arch rivals (Al-Nahda and Tunisia Call movements) could be reached to carry out managing the country for another transitional period before resorting to public polls.
• Tunisia Call Movement, throught its leaders Mr. Al-Baji Gayid Al-Sibsi, does not rule out resorting to a Higher State Council in case the Constituent assembly or Presidency opposes or rejects the new Prime Minister. The Higher Council would include, initially, representatives of the Troika (Mr. Rashid Al-Ghannoushi was named) and a representative of the civil society organizations (the Secretary General of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW)), and a representative of the opposition (naturally would be Al-Sibsi himself). Logically speaking Al-Nahda would not accept adding another representative for the opposition in such a Higher Council. So, in case this plan “B” sees the light of day, the Popular Front will be out of such Higher Council.
• The Popular Front receives assurances from their ally in Tunisia Call Movement and considers the Higher Council’s idea to be ruled out. Instead, the idea of such a council came from the Quartet as a mechanism to choose the Prime Minister and consists of the quartet itself and political parties.
• The suspension of the national dialogue caused rifts in the ranks of the Salvation Front. Day in day out, the Republican Party distances itself from the rest of the Front’s parties. The Democratic Alliance Party also distances itself from the rest in the Front through insisting on nominating Mr. Jalloul Ayyad for the post of PM, while the Popular Front insists on rejecting him and nominating former lawyers’ syndicate Chief Shawqy Al-Tabeeb.
• Former Prime Minister Rashid Sifr issues an initiative to form a ruling council comprising the latest four or three personalities nominated for prime minster. The council would form a starting point for the cabinet of experts. Ministerial posts would be allocated through consultations among the council members. The same suggestion was presented by Mansour Ma’alla, Finance Minister at Bo Rqaiba’s era, but it was not looked into due to objections by various parties on the council members’ suggested names.
•The presidency told some politicians that it was ready to shoulder its duties stated in the General authorities Law. Members from Congress Party and Movement and Fulfillment support this tendency through declaring (despite being outside the umbrella of the national dialogue in the first place) that the dialogue has failed and the solution is resorting to the General authorities Law! The Law authorizes the interim president to appoint the prime minister. Movement and Fulfillment party presented an initiative asking the current government to resign and Al-Nahda to refrain from nominating a prime minister, giving the president margin to choose. That tendency and initiative represent a breach of the Quartet’s initiative, the roadmap and the necessities of the national dialogue!
•During the last of hours of negotiations, Mustafa Al-Filali was close to gaining consensus as prime minister. Al-Filali is a veteran politician who served as a member of the first Constituent Council (1956-1959). Some parties of the dialogue, especially Al-Nahda Movement, prefer veterans who are experienced and more neutral than young politicians. That is why Al-Nahda, during earlier rounds of dialogue, had chosen Ahmed Al-Ministeeri, who was also a member of the Constituent Council and a Finance Minister with Bo Rqaiba (1956).
Cart before the Horse:
Putting the cart before the horse is a luxury not available all. Al-Nahda Movement, however, is the best to use that tactic so far. The dialogue went on and on, exhausting all parties and became even boring. At the crucial moment, Al-Nahda put on the table the card reserved for desperate times. The Popular Front had declared refraining from nominating any one and they were ready to accept any name everybody else agrees on. They did not want to look like they were hindering the process of dialogue, therefore they just expressed their objection by refraining from voting on Mahdi. Tunisia Call and the Republican Party chose to withdraw from the meeting room.
“A knight succeeds a knight”, Ghannoushi used the phrase to comment on the choice of Mahdi, with sign of relief showing on the faces of Al-Nahda members and supporters. On the other hand, the opposition was divided among some rejecting the result of Tunisia’s longest national dialogue process and others asking for giving the new man a chance to judge on his actions once he starts to pick his ministers, in a bid to judge on actions of the cabinet.
That reversed methodology or rather the absence of a methodology was behind the impossible prolonging of the dialogue and the vicious circle that went on and on for nothing most of the time. Taking into consideration the nature of the coming period, the tasks mentioned in the roadmap – mostly forgotten for now – are mostly political, not economic. We need a politician well aware of the complications of the Tunisian scene and capable of reading the political map easily, as the prime task now is to clear the political and social atmospheres. In this regard, the causes of the political crisis need to be addressed (failure of the ruling Troika), the moral issue (absence of trust) must be tackled. Such central tasks are broken down to more detailed assignments; revision of appointments in the bureaucratic system, security entities and other administrations that are based on loyalties not efficiency. Moreover, the law must be applied strictly to terrorist and fanatic elements, mosques must be ruled out of the political scene. In addition, swift economic measures are required to reform the economy and develop the deprived areas in particular. Such measures should pave the road for transparent free elections, with international supervision.
Wasting such long precious time on nominations and names, without agreement on the agenda is like waiting for godot or waiting for the Mahdi (savior). In other words, it is like putting the cart before the horse!
• The consensus – however partial it is – on Mahdi to head the new cabinet of experts is not the end of the story. The Quartet and other political parties are still in for more rounds of talks to meet the requirements of the roadmap. One difficulty facing Mahdi is the narrow two-week-deadline to present his cabinet to the Constituent Assembly, however the real difficulty faces the Constituent course itself; namely the agenda for the National Constituent Assembly, the deadlines for finishing the constitutional draft, nominating the Independent Higher Agency for Elections, issuing the electoral law and setting dates for the coming elections. All these deadlines are not sure to be met so far and the General Union of Tunisian Workers in particular and the Quartet in general could not press for the commitment of its original roadmap after two months of exhausting negotiations, just to name an interim prime minister. In addition, the public are sure to be fed up with economic hardships and political crises.
•Taking into considerations the history and difficulties of the national dialogue process, declaring consensus on an interim independent prime minister is sure better than declaring failure of the process. Failure would have led the unknown on the political, social and security fields. Also declaring the failure would have meant economic catastrophes in the form of difficulties in people’s day to day affairs, the release of foreign aid installments to say the least. In general and despite objections on the name of the prime minister and the process of choosing him itself, it still remains that declaring the agreement on Mahdi is better than declaring the dialogue as a complete failure. Consensus is impossible naturally and any other nominee would have rejected by some party. The voting process witnessed some absentees, some objections by withdrawing, some votes against (2) and some for (9). Thing is the objecting parties are now speaking out loud against Mahdi and coordinating their next steps already!
•Al-Nahda Movement came out of the dialogue process in a better position than before. It was keen on showing the public opinion (locally and globally) that it is keen on consensus and it is ready to offer sacrifices in order to save democracy in Tunisia. Moreover, it now has rid itself from the burden of ruling alone, with the advent of an expected “hot winter” domestically over a budget described as “unpopular”! On the other hand, the opposition did score some positive results in regards to the possibility of removing Al-Nahda from power and supervision of the coming elections. However, the opposition is now cracking more than ever in terms of its solidarity as a unit compared to when it started with the formation of the Salvation front that included a wide spectrum of opposition parties on the eve of the sit-in in Bardou Square following the assassination of Al-Ibrahimi (July 25, 2013).
•The General Union of Tunisian Workers (GUTW) and the Quartet in general achieved national gains through avoiding the country fearful scenarios. However, some members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers criticize the fact that the dialogue should been declared a failure better than accepting a prime minister (Mahdi) from among the ranks of al-Nahda). The Union will also be required to silence labor opposition voices in the coming period as per the agreement to give the new prime minister the chance to work calmly on the social and political fronts.
The goal of the dialogue was to reach a legitimacy of consensus to replace the eroding electoral legitimacy. But the results of the marathon dialogue fell way below expectations; a cabinet born with opposition to it ready and waiting while it was hoped for a cabinet agreed on and supported by all! That is why the birth of the “savior” was a caesarian one!