During the previous week, President Beji Caid Essebsi delivered an hour-long speech in which he threatened to use the army to break up the protests in Tataouine and at the oil production facilities in El Kamour. The sit-ins had been going for over a month then, but the restless protestors demanding jobs and development projects for the southern region were not satisfied by the promises PM Youcef Chahed pledged during a visit to region, and hence decided to escalate the protest by taking control of the only access road to the oil production base in EL Kamour. Back in Tunis a few days before Essebsi’s speech, Chafik Sarsar, president of the elections oversight body, ISIE, announced his resignation, together with vice president Mourad Ben Mouelli and member Lamia Zergouni. Sersar did not give an explicit reason for the resignation, but during the press conference he held with Mouelli and Zergouni he explained that the resignation was the only option left after it became clear that “the disagreement among the ISIE body is not limited to technical aspects but rather to matters of ethics and principles on which democracy is founded”. In Tunis rumours are rife, but it is believed that in the light of the difficulties faced by the economic reconciliation bill proposed to parliament by President Essebsi, the presidency opted to pass the law through a referendum that would be organised by ISIE. This suggestion by Essebsi split members of ISIE, some of whose members have publicly expressed their support for the referendum while others (Sarsar, Zergouni, and Mouelli) preferred to offer their resignation in protest three days before Essebsi’s speech to the nation. Tunisian analysts believe that Sarsar’s public resignation caught Essebsi off-guard and he had to omit the call for a referendum during his speech.
Essebsi’s speech, most observers think, fell short of appeasing concerns. It was rather counter-productive, as most reviews in traditional and social media indicate. The threat to use the army to break up the protests in Tataouine pushed the protestors to harden their position, and to rally support for the protest movement in neighbouring southern towns, with similar protest actions. Three days after Essebsi’s speech, a youth protest movement against the economic reconciliation bill called “Manish M’samah” (Not willing to forgive) staged a march on Bourguiba Avenue. Ennahdha had apparently instructed its youth base not to take part in the march as it had not yet expressed a definitive position about the proposed bill. While Ghanouchi and some of the key figures of the executive bureau are in favour of the reconciliation bill, the party’s Shura consultative council has ruled against the draft bill in its current state. Nevertheless, some Ennahdha youth took part in the May 13 march, which is indicative of their frustration and some even think rebellion among segments of the Ennahdha youth against Ghanouchi’s alliance with Essebsi in the name of consensus for the sake of stability. Elements from the Popular Front took part in the march. They tried to “hijack” it by chanting anti-Islamist slogans, but were overwhelmed by the youth who wanted to keep the protest focussed on opposing the economic reconciliation bill. The political elite, civil society, and Tunisians in general are divided with regard to the Essebsi’s proposed law. Some, such as Nidaa Tounes and Afak Tounes, are favourable to it in order, they argue, to jump-start the economy and create jobs for the youth, while others consider it undermines the fundamentals of transitional justice and grants impunity. If it were not for the fragmentation of the parliamentary bloc of Nidaa Tounes the bill would have passed provided Ennahdha voted for it. But the former is in total disarray, with another new group of Nidaa Tounes forming an independent bloc this week. With Ennahdha still undecided, President Essebsi is left with the option of the referendum, but this attempt had complicated things further triggering a crisis with ISIE that have been busy preparing to hold local elections next December.
The next few months are tricky ones. The Tunisian elite seems unable to agree on the priorities for their democratic transition. Should they deal with the past and fulfil transitional justice? Or jump-start the economy to appease social hardship and tensions? Or finish the construction of constitutional institutions including local elections? Underpinning all these three aspects is the fear among some that the Essebsi-Ghanouchi consensus is increasingly becoming a threat to the democratic transition process rather than an asset for stability. The confrontation in El Kamour has so far resulted in the death one protester. This development has convinced Hamma Hammami, leader of the Popular Front, of the urgency of holding snap elections.
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