Protesters gather outside the Constituent Assembly to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government in Tunis, July 28, 2013.
Anis Mili / Courtesy Reuters

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.

Of course, the compromise deal doesn’t erase what seem like real ideological differences. One secular Tunisian political scientist told me scathingly that the Islamist Ennahda party was no more than a “subaltern elite,” born in working-class suburbs, its base of support in the distant rural south rather than the cultured capital city, Tunis. Beji Caid Essebsi, a veteran politician and now the leader of the main secular opposition party, Nidaa Tunis, spoke of a momentous cultural clash. “We say a modern society needs a secular state where religion doesn't intervene. They want a state with Islamic coloring,” he told me this summer. “We are moving in completely different directions.” The opposition has only modest representation in the current assembly. Nidaa Tunis was formed after the last elections and has never been electorally tested, while leftist parties like al-Jomhouri, led by Nejib Chebbi, and the more radical Popular Front, led by the veteran communist Hamma Hammami, won barely a handful of seats in the last elections. But the opposition has claimed what it calls “consensual legitimacy” and “street legitimacy,” taking advantage of the growing anger at continued unemployment to challenge Ennahda and force it out of office well before the next elections.

Yet this ideological polarization is not as extreme as it appears -- at least, it has not prevented the two sides from engaging in normal political negotiations, as the deal makes clear. Ennahda is at the moderate end of the Islamist spectrum: it supports democracy, endorses a civil rather than a religious state, and, in the late Ben Ali years, signed key agreements with the secular left, including communists, on their shared vision for a future Tunisia. Earlier this fall, Essebsi, despite his apparent concerns about the Islamists, held talks in a Paris hotel room with Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder and leader of Ennahda. That meeting was the basis of the compromise deal now in play, in which Ennahda has given in to opposition demands that it step down from government. The political wrangling underscores that, despite the heated rhetoric and threat of instability, this is still a straightforward struggle for political power, typical of any democratic system. Ennahda eventually agreed to step down from power now, because it believes it can reemerge as the largest party in parliament in the next elections, despite the criticism it faces for the country’s sluggish economy and a rising tide of radical violence under its watch.

The incoming prime minister, Jomaa, is a politically independent former aerospace engineer. He has promised to install a cabinet of young ministers who will focus on tackling corruption. But forming an electoral commission and setting a date for presidential and parliamentary elections late next year will be his priority. After all, the technocratic government will not take power until Ennahda has formally resigned and the Islamists will not step down without a guaranteed election date that gives them a chance to return to government. This transfer was supposed to happen within days, but is likely to take weeks.

Jomaa must also oversee the contentious finalizing of the new constitution, which has gone through numerous drafts, but is unlikely to prove as combative. Both sides have recognized that they have an interest in presenting themselves to the public as reasonable stewards of the constitutional process. Ennahda recently withdrew several lingering controversial elements, including an article that would have made Islam the religion of the state and the separate Law to Protect the Revolution, which would have barred senior figures from the former ruling party, including current members of Nidaa Tunis, from political life. On top of this agenda, Jomaa will have to build a consensus. The main opposition parties, including Nidaa Tunis, fear that he is Ennahda’s man, and they either walked out or abstained at the last minute from the vote on his nomination. On Friday, one opposition party, al-Jomhouri, even pulled out of the negotiations over the formation of the new cabinet.

There are other precedents of cooperation between Tunisia’s Islamist and secular representatives. The two sides recently agreed on a new transitional justice law that will tackle crimes of torture and human rights abuses under the old regime through what they’re calling the Truth and Dignity Commission. But many other reforms remain unfulfilled, including changes to the penal code inherited from Ben Ali. Dissidents have not fared any better since the dictator’s fall. Jabeur Mejri, now an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was jailed in March 2012 for seven and a half years for posting lewd caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. A rapper who goes by the name Weld el 15 was just released on appeal after he was jailed for a song that the authorities deemed insulting to the police.

Ennahda’s compromises have imposed some political costs. Competing currents within Ennahda, from religious proselytizers to pragmatic politicians, routinely clash over political priorities. Some believe that Ennahda should focus on preaching its interpretation of Islam and winning support for a broader Islamic project from the grassroots. Others, however, want Ennahda to focus on politics from above in order to change society, even though that requires uncomfortable compromise. All are acutely aware of the fate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and are keen to avoid the missteps that might lead to a similar violent confrontation with secular forces. The party’s convention next year promises to include heated debates about whether it can continue to embrace both a religious movement and a political party or whether the two should go their separate ways.

There are already signs of dissension in the ranks. A few months ago, Riadh Chaibi, a prominent intellectual and a long-term Ennahda member, left the movement, saying that it had failed to rebuild its roots in society and to address the injustices committed by the Ben Ali regime. Others in the party admit privately that an aging leadership is struggling to recruit a new generation of supporters. One former political prisoner from the party’s Shura Council spoke of a “vacuum of youth” and described his repeated failures to win over young religious Tunisians, who were more attracted to the radical promises of the nascent Salafist movement than to the pragmatism of Ennahda. “This is a new generation born in repression, created in our absence,” he said. “You can’t have a discussion with them. They see only in black and white.”

The great achievement of the Tunisian uprising is that, so far, the democratic transition has stayed the course. However, there are worrying signs of increasing Salafist radicalism: the two political assassinations this year, insurgent attacks on the Tunisian army, and an October suicide bombing in the resort town of Sousse. And the socioeconomic crisis that ultimately sparked the Tunisian uprising three years ago persists. Unemployment has dipped but still stands officially at more than 15 per cent, and is even higher in the poor towns of the interior. The economy, including the vital tourism industry, remains stagnant and has yet to fully recover from years of upheaval. A political agreement about a new technocratic government is a small step in the right direction. But whoever governs Tunisia will need to take many more.

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  • 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.
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