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Let's Make a Deal
Letter From Tunis
RORY MCCARTHY is a doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, where he researches Islamist activism in contemporary Tunisia. He is a former Middle East correspondent for The Guardian.See more by this author
Three years after the popular uprising that brought down President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes have become part of daily life in Tunisia. Railway workers, customs officers, and doctors went on strike earlier this month over changes to their working conditions; next month, taxi drivers will begin an open-ended sit-in to protest rising fuel prices. Politics often seem hopelessly polarized, with Islamists led by the political party Ennahda pitted against their secular opponents in parliament in a manner not unlike Egypt’s bloody rivalries. And the assassinations of two prominent liberal politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, by Islamist militants earlier this year brought public anger against Ennahda into the streets, as many Tunisians blamed the Islamists for a soft embrace of extremist groups. It appeared that Tunisia -- whose largely functional democratic transition has set it apart from the other Arab Spring countries -- would no longer avoid the violence that has undermined the other revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East.
But for the first time in a long time, the political class has reached an accord. On December 14, after weeks of broken promises and missed deadlines, Tunisia’s rival political parties finally agreed on a deal to dissolve the Ennahda-led government and create an interim administration led by a compromise prime minister. If all goes according to plan, Mehdi Jomaa, who had previously served as minister of industry, will lead a caretaker government of technocrats until elections can be held next year, most likely after the summer. It’s further confirmation that, despite their ideological differences, Tunisia’s Islamists and secularists are perfectly capable of cooperating. It’s also another sign of pragmatism from the Islamists, who in October 2011 swept the first elections after the fall of Ben Ali. Now Ennahda, an Islamist force that sees itself as both a grassroots movement and a political party, has agreed to bow to the demands of its critics and give up power.