Wilson Center Senior Scholar David Ottaway discussed the issues Tunisia’s government faces in ruling the country and working towards the formation of a new form of government. He also described prospects for the country’s future.

On April 25, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on “Tunisia’s Islamists Struggle to Rule” with Ottaway. Haleh Esfandiari, Wilson Center Middle East Program Director, moderated the event.

Ottaway opened the discussion by outlining important events of the Tunisian uprisings. Protests began on December 17, 2010, after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. On January 14, 2011, President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down. On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held its first election since the revolution began resulting in Ennahda receiving 31 percent of the vote and 89 of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly. After two months, a coalition government was formed which announced the constitution will be completed in March 2013, followed by  parliamentary elections

Ottaway went on to describe issues the current government faces. The first being the conflicts between the Islamists and secularists—made worse by the Salafis—and conflicts between Ennahda and the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)—which Ennahda views as the epitome of “French secular extremism.” Ottaway explained that the country is essentially polarized by French secularism on the one hand and Saudi Wahhabi Salafism on the other. Another issue is that of the economy, which faced negative growth in 2011 and saw declines in tourism and foreign direct investment. The UGTT, which centers its political demands on economic issues, regularly pressures the government for more jobs and calls for strikes. A third issue is Ennahda’s internal divisions. Ottaway described the group’s diverse membership, from Salafis to more liberal businesspeople. He stressed that with elections next March, Ennahda does not want to alienate Salafis and looks to attract Salafis outside the group. The fourth issue is assessing how the coalition government is faring thus far. Ottaway described the coalition as a marriage of necessity rather than common interest, where both sides realize they cannot run the country without the other.

Ottaway then discussed the positive and negative prospects for Tunisia and Ennahda. He claimed a major negative is the lack of common vision on what Tunisia should look like. While Ennahda wants to get rid of the secular model, pursuing a “civil state” where mosque and state are separated will be difficult as Ennahda has trouble distinguishing between religious goals and how to run a country. The second negative prospect is the economy, which will likely be a source of conflict between the UGTT and Ennahda. The third negative is the conflict between Ennahda and the Salafis. Ottaway predicted the Salafis would pull Ennahda towards a more religious stance instead of seeing the Salafis being pulled into a more moderate position. The fourth negative is the question of who actually runs Ennahda and what its internal workings look like, made difficult by its lack of a formal political party.

Ottaway then focused on the positives. He established that the Constituent Assembly is working well and compromising on issues, which indicates the two sides will likely continue to reach consensus over remaining disagreements. Second, in Tunisia the army has not involved itself in politics as it has in Egypt, simplifying the process of governance. Third, the population of Tunisia is relatively small, consisting of only 10 million people. Finally, there has been a lot of international financial support from other countries and the World Bank, and Tunisia has a manageable debt to GDP ratio. Ottaway concluded that despite the issues Ennahda faces in its new governing role, Tunisia has a positive outlook overall.

By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program