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Tunisia, a model in Arab uprisings, scrambles to get back on track

Egypt and Libya have been mired in constant violence and political turmoil since their uprisings, but Tunisia’s transition was relatively smooth until yesterday’s shooting of an opposition leader.

With turmoil in Egypt and militias in Libya, Tunisia has stood out among Arab Spring peers for the comparative smoothness of its progress toward democracy. But now, a day after a politician’s murder plunged the country into crisis, Tunisian leaders are scrambling to keep things on track.

The death of Chokri Belaid, an opposition party leader, sent thousands into the streets in protest. As anger mushroomed, protesters denounced both the killing and the government on whose watch it occurred – and of which Mr. Belaid was a fierce critic.

Key political parties seem to agree that a new cabinet is needed, but are divided on how to craft one. The leading Ennahda party has even clashed with its own prime minister after he said he would replace the government with a cabinet of technocrats. The future of Tunisia’s democratic transition will depend in large part on leaders’ ability to find a common way forward.

“If the parties can’t agree on a caretaker government, there’s a significant risk of a political crisis and a partial breakdown in Tunisia’s democratic transition,” says Geoffrey Howard, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk assessment firm.

Hard time in the driver’s seat

That transition began two years ago, when protests unseated former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after two decades of strict secularist rule. His departure unleashed a culture war as a multitude of secularist parties squared off against the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda party, which swept October 2011 elections.

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Today Ennahda heads a coalition government with two secularist parties that has had a mixed record of success. The parties have generally cooperated, but have occasionally butted heads over religious issues, and have been hamstrung for weeks over a long-delayed cabinet reshuffle.

Meanwhile, a draft constitution is months overdue, scant preparations have been made for elections expected in June, and many Tunisians have grown frustrated by what they call the government’s failure to keep the peace and relieve economic malaise.

Ennahda has taken most of the flack. After scoring well in last year’s elections, it has struggled to appeal both to religious moderates and the working class while also reaching out to more conservative Muslims.

Belaid was among Ennahda’s fiercest critics. He accused the party in particular of lenience toward violent groups, from a violent strand within the minority Salafi movement to rowdy pro-government activists called the Committees to Protect the Revolution.

A quest for common ground

Yesterday morning, Belaid was shot as he left his house. It remains unclear who killed him, or why. Ennahda and other parties have condemned the murder and urged authorities to bring its perpetrators to justice.

In the hours after Belaid’s death, thousands of Tunisians poured into streets across the country in what appeared to be a burst of generalized anger. Some called for a new revolution and the government’s downfall, and some accused the state of complicity in Belaid’s death. Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds, and at least one police station was reported burned.

Last night, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda said he would replace his cabinet with a lineup of apolitical technocrats and hold elections as soon as possible. Both are easier said than done, according to analysts.

Elections require a new law governing procedure and a new electoral commission, both tricky and time consuming to establish, says Slim Laghmani, a law professor at Carthage University, nearTunis. According to Mr. Howard of Control Risks, snap elections could do more harm than good.

“Despite the risks of delay, I think an extended transition period would have more positive implications for Tunisia’s longterm stability and institutional growth,” he says.

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For now, parties must agree on a new government. While some opposition parties have reportedly warmed to Mr. Jebali’s proposal for a technocrat cabinet, his own party has rejected it. Ennahda says it wants the coalition it leads to continue running Tunisia following a proposed cabinet reshuffle.

It’s unclear whether parties will be able to find common ground soon, analysts say.

“There’s a credible prospect that the different sides won’t agree on the best way to form a technocratic government,” says Howard, citing weeks of deadlock over the delayed cabinet reshuffle and Ennahda’s rejection of Jebali’s proposal yesterday as causes for worry.

On other hand, “There has been a degree of residual goodwill among the parties,” he says. “There’s been a lot of criticism of Ennahda, but the feeling of wanting to progress seems to have kept the transition on track.”

Mr. Laghmani echoes that speculation. And while there are differences among parties, he believes leaders – or at least their constituents – share a commitment to basic values of nonviolence and personal freedoms. “I’m confident that the average Tunisian wants to keep his way of life,” he says.