With elections set for the fall, Tunisian voters are searching for leaders to emerge who can tackle issues of political fragmentation, long standing economic problems, growing protests, and a volatile regional environment with civil war in Libya on one side and political upheaval in Algeria on the other. Sarah Yerkes, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East program, and Sharan Grewal, postdoctoral fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, join host Alistair Taylor to discuss. 

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Alistair Taylor [00:00:10] Welcome to Middle East Focus. I'm Alistair Taylor, MEI's editorial director. And today we're going to be talking about Tunisia. Often hailed as the success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia faces a host of issues at home including political fragmentation, longstanding economic problems, and growing protests to name a few, as well as a volatile regional environment with civil war in Libya on one side and political upheaval in Algeria on the other. To discuss the situation and where things might go in the run up to the elections in the fall I'm joined today by two great guests. Sarah Yerkes and Sharan Grewal.

Alistair Taylor [00:00:41] Sarah is a fellow with Carnegie's Middle East Program where her research focuses on Tunisia's political economic and security developments as well as state society relations in the Middle East in North Africa. Sharan is a post doctoral research fellow at Brookings Center for Middle East policy. His research examines democratization, Security Studies and Political Islam in the Arab world especially Egypt and Tunisia. Before we dive in I should also note for our listeners that MEI is hosting a conference on North Africa on May 8th in conjunction with the Southern Methodist University Tower Center for Political Studies. If you're interested in attending or want to know more you can find that information on our Web site. Sarah, Sharan, thank you both for joining us today. And welcome to the program.

Sharan Grewal [00:01:21] Pleasure to be here.

Sarah Yerkes [00:01:22] Thanks for having us sir.

Alistair Taylor [00:01:24] I'd like to start with you. The big reason news seems to be the further fragmentation of the Nidaa Tounes party. Last fall the prime minister left to create his own party. And then last month Nidaa Tounes split again with two rival factions electing different leaders. What's going on?

Sarah Yerkes [00:01:39] That is a great question. It's a really chaotic situation in Tunisia right now. Basically you have a bunch of different political actors and a bunch of different political parties who are really driven by personalities. So the fact that when a party starts a fragment it's really all about the person. When a person leaves a party the party kind of falls apart. But what you've seen even more strangely in Tunisia today is this idea that you have two people, the president's son and the prime minister, at odds with each other literally on television yelling at each other and accusing each other of different things. Something that we hadn't really seen in Tunisia before.

 [00:02:12] Sharan, Tunisia is set to hold elections this fall, legislative ones in October and then presidential ones in November. How much of an impact do you think these divisions will end up having?

Sharan Grewal [00:02:22] The divisions are certainly going to hurt Nidaa Tounes. And honestly if the split continues or if one of these factions literally leaves Nidaa Tounes, I think they're going to quickly become irrelevant as a political actor. It seems that they are going to be overshadowed in terms of their side of the spectrum the non Islamist or modernist camp as they like to call themselves I think they're going to be overshadowed by other parties like Tahya Tounes, which is the new party of the Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, as well as some other parties like Machrouu Tounes or Mubadara that I think are also trying to claim that same end of the spectrum. On the other hand if Nidaa Tounes is able to get their act together in the sense that if the president's son Hafedh Caid Essebsi is marginalized within Nidaa Tounes, I think that is a way for Sofian Toubel and the other faction of Nidaa Tounes to keep that party alive moving forward.

Alistair Taylor [00:03:13] On the issue of the president's son, if the president sticks to his pledge as he's come out and said that he won't be running in the elections in the fall what happens to his son. What are his political prospects look like going forward.

Sharan Grewal [00:03:23] Very slim I think. The reason he is there as head of the party is because of his father a lot of people within Nidaa Tounes know that and that's why they are defecting from it. And I think they have realized that if Beji Caid Essebsi doesn't run if he retires from politics then Hafedh Caid Essebsi also loses his momentum really for being there. So you see that after Beji Caid Essebsi said he wouldn't run it is Hafedh Caid Essebsi and his faction that are still calling and insisting for his father to run.

Alistair Taylor [00:03:50] Sarah, do we know anything else about who the other candidates might be in the elections at this point.

Sarah Yerkes [00:03:55]  So no one really of note has said that they're going to run. There's been a lot of speculation. President Beji Caid Essebsi first of all has said he won't. You never know there's still several months until the election and also at the other side the Islamist party Nahda, there the head of the party Rached Ghannouchi has also said he wouldn't run but he said he wouldn't run if President Essebsi ran. So there's some kind of questioning going on there of who's going to run. We really don't know. Some people have declared; one of the more interesting candidates that's declared is a woman, the only female candidate, who is running from a sort of populist position. She has been sort of blatantly outfront saying she doesn't really think the revolution was a good idea. She's sort of anti democracy, and a lot of people from across the political spectrum are really afraid of her, in part because she's polling better than anyone else, with the big caveat that a lot of people haven't announced our position yet. So we still have to kind of wait and see over the next few months but we're getting halfway through this year the elections are going to be taking place in October, November, December. So there's not a lot of time for a new candidate to announce themselves and to build up a lot of momentum.

Alistair Taylor [00:04:57] What are likely to be the major issues for voters?

Sarah Yerkes [00:05:00] I think the biggest issue is going to be the economy. The economic situation in Tunisia has pretty much gone downhill since the revolution. Most people today are worse off than they were prior to the revolution in 2010/2011 and people are angry and they're frustrated. There's a huge amount of mistrust with political parties; with political institutions. So a lot of the candidates, a lot of the people in the political parties who are out there, are trying to make sure that people understand they're going to help them. They're going to do something about youth unemployment, about rising inflation, about all of this. But the question of whether any of the parties can actually come up with a platform that can appeal to the people remains. I interviewed the heads of eleven political parties in December and none of them had a clear answer. None of them had actually any sort of concrete proposal on how they would fix the economy. I think the economy will come up time and again. But the question is will it actually be enough to draw people to the polls.

Sharan Grewal [00:05:51] Yes, I can add to that. Sarah is certainly right that economics are the big issue and that none of the parties really have developed a platform on that. But it is still very good that finally economics is going to be these central political cleavage in Tunisia and the 2011 elections the 2014 elections it was primarily around secular religious issues and there was also an attempt to bring that back for this time around. Last fall there were pushes to make equal inheritance a big issue which was very much a secular religious issue. There were also attempts and rumors to say that Ennahda had a secret apparatus; again trying to marginalize the Islamist side versus the secularists. Both of those attempts seemed to have failed and fizzled out. Now the media attention is entirely on the economic issue, which is good, it will finally put pressure on the political parties to develop platforms, whether they're able to remains to be seen, but at least it is good that now the focus is on economics.

Sarah Yerkes [00:06:42] And one more thing to that is that even if they do develop platforms it's not clear how different they would be from each other. So you know you've seen this big sort of fight in Tunisia right now between the IMF, the sort of IMF proposed austerity measures, and then pretty much every single political party with the exception of a few, have come out and said that, you know, they're very much against this. We just saw very recently, further increases in pensions and increases in public sector salaries and wages. These sorts of things that the government has put forward. Prime Minister Chahed was I think one of the most brave political leaders in actually being willing to put forward some of these IMF proposals. He's actually said we need to put forth these austerity measures if we want the country to succeed. And he got so much pushback from the Labour Unions, the UGTT and from others, that he's now the one who's putting forward the pension reform and putting forward increased salaries. So I completely agree with Sharan that it's a good thing that this is on the table, but I'm not sure how the party will be able to differentiate themselves within their economic platforms, should they actually develop them.

Alistair Taylor [00:07:41] We'll dig into the economic situation a bit more detail in a moment but I wanted to take a moment to step back from the specifics of what parties may or may not run in the coming elections, to look at the bigger picture about the political system. The success of Tunisia's political transition has often been attributed to this kind of consensus model. Do you think that's something that's sustainable moving forward and is that even desirable?

Sarah Yerkes [00:08:02] No and actually I just wrote a paper on this so I plug my paper that's on the Carnegie website. But no I think actually you know I've sort of felt this way for a while. It's time for the end of consensus in Tunisia. Consensus was crucial for Tunisia in its early stages. You know they suffered a lot of setbacks; that democratic transition back in 2012/2013, and it was really important that the political leaders who are still the same players today; Rached Ghannouchi, Beji Caid Essebsi and others, including civil society were able to come together to put their differences aside, and to say 'we want democracy to succeed, we're going to ignore everything else,' that was great then. Now, we have a situation where you have no real strong political opposition. As I mentioned before, no real differentiation between parties and tremendous mistrust between the people and the government, in part I think, because they don't see the government working for them, and they don't see any real differentiation. If you were a voter for Nidaa Tounes, they came in, their whole raison d'être was to be against Nahda. They came in and joined a government with Nata.

Sarah Yerkes [00:09:04] Nahda is supposed to be vehemently opposed to Nidaa Tounes.They came in and joined a party with Nidaa Tounes. So if you're a voter on either side, you see this kind of weakened watered down party. And the other part of that is that the result has been weak legislation, unable to get things done, no one kind of willing to take the risk, that consensus is supposed to be there for them to do.

Sarah Yerkes [00:09:22] Consensus should allow parties to be more risky, and instead we've seen a sort of less risky, less creative legislator system.

Sharan Grewal [00:09:29] Definitely, and you've seen people no longer feeling represented by those parties, which has contributed not only to people, I think, not turning out to vote and not joining parties, but I think also becoming disillusioned with democracy as a whole. All right. Not only is it not delivering economically, but the parties aren't representing your interests. And so I think that's contributing, more generally to disillusionment with the whole process.

Sharan Grewal [00:09:52] But what I would qualify Sara's account, is that there are some areas in which you still need consensus moving forward. Right, in order to form the Constitutional Court and to approve those members in the Parliament, you're going to need a very large majority to get that passed. And so there you still need consensus, also on some of the economic issues, these structural reforms are going to be difficult. And so if the elites can show some unity and some consensus and pushing them through, that may be the only way for them to actually get through. In some ways consensus is still needed. And so, perhaps, what we need to think about moving forward is, who is best to deliver that consensus. Right. If you have another sort of coalition with Ennahda and then some other non Islamist parties such as Tahya Tounes for instance; can those parties hang together, in a way that Nidaa Tounes and Nahda could not in the way that Nidaa Tounes is completely fragmented. Can that party stick together and actually deliver the consensus that Tunisia needs; or is it just going to be more of the same - fragmentation, the disillusionment that Sarah was getting at, and again a failure of consensus.

Sarah Yerkes [00:10:57] And also another option there is that you know we talk about Nahda and then everyone else. But there's tremendous diversity amongst the non-Islamists or (the word secular is not really accurate, but it's the easiest word to use) against other secular parties. And you could envision some scenario, or two, where they come together where I just said consensus is bad.

Sarah Yerkes [00:11:15] But maybe you know, in this situation, consensus, or at least some sort of coalition building. And there's a difference between consensus and coalition building. You can come together, form a coalition on an economic issue, or on a specific social or political issue, and then that coalition can break apart. You don't have to, all be together all the time. There's not really an interest among the various non Islamist parties to come together and form a coalition against Nahda, which, honestly, they're going to need to do if they want to defeat Nahda these elections.

Alistair Taylor [00:11:46] Moving on to the issue of the economy, Sharan, what are the major economic issues facing Tunisia right now, and how much of an impact has the Government had so far in addressing them.

Sharan Grewal [00:11:55] The major issue now is the living standards that have plummeted tremendously since 2011, in fact by almost every metric the economy is worse today than it was in 2010/2011. In terms of unemployment, prior, to the revolution used to be 12 or 13 percent, now is 15 percent, in terms of GDP growth, it used to be around 4 or 5 percent, today is struggling to even get to 2 percent. In terms of every metric, it's even worse than that, which led to the revolution. And so in that sense it's a big issue and in particularwhat it's manifesting itself in is in terms of wages. So there's pressure from the IMF not to increase public sector wages, not to increase the size of the public sector, or the amount that's spent on wages, whereas UGTT, and the population, frankly, is pushing for higher wages to be able to get by with the rising prices that Tunisia is seeing. So that is; the manifestation of the economic crisis is in terms of wages. But I think what makes it so powerful, and I think which is why it's going to become the defining issue of the elections, is that it's wrapped up also in the nationalist narrative, which is that the UGTT is saying that this is not only that we need wages to increase, but it's that this government is beholden to the IMF and to other foreign entities that are not letting it look to the interest of Tunisians. What's also interesting is that the UGTT has sort of the historical legitimacy to make that nationalism claim, because UGTT has been around for a while, and was active in the independence movement; even their secretary general was assassinated by the French, and so they have this historical legitimacy also to make this nationalist frame around the economic issue, which is I think why they've been so effective in mobilizing people to turn out in January for instance.

Alistair Taylor [00:13:38] Tunisia has seen steady protests over the past few months driven by a lot of these same issues, including most recently a strike by fuel transportation workers over wages and the government has taking some steps to address the underlying issues. But how much room do you think they really have, Sarah, to maneuver given IMF austerity program, and the fact that they're meant to be cutting the budget under that?

Sarah Yerkes [00:13:57] I think the Government's in a really difficult position. I mean they're stuck between the IMF ends and the popular will. The IMF has, I think been rather generous, or rather patient, with the government. The last disbursement was delayed because they saw that Tunisia had raised wages when it wasn't supposed to. And there was a warning that look if you keep doing these things, we're going to delay the money, but I think there's also international recognition, not just the IMF, but the international committee as a whole, that people want Tunisia to succeed. And so this idea that we're going to hold back our money, or we're not going to give it to you, is a little bit of a false threat. I think that the government understands they're going to get the IMF money and they did get the IMF money and they're going to keep getting international support because it's really important that Tunisia succeeds, especially now that you have not only the Libyan crisis on the one side, but you also have this uncertainty in Algeria and the sort of chaotic situation there. So the government, I think, is trying to satisfy the UGTT and satisfy the public. You have pensioners saying 'I've worked my whole life for this country and now I can't afford to feed myself for my family you need to help me.' How do you say no to that? It's not like no this is corruption or some sort of like massive political issue. But at the same time the country doesn't have the money to pay them, so they're in a difficult situation, they need some real structural reform, they need a real economic dialogue and look at this in the short term and in the long term in recognition there will be short term pain to get to the long term gain, which requires even more international support and I think that's where the UGTT narrative comes into question, maybe the IMF is a foreign entity driving some of this. But if you don't have international support, whether it's private sector development, whether it's increased foreign tourism, these kinds of things are what's going to keep Tunisia going if you don't have that, the country's not going to last.

Alistair Taylor [00:15:40] Do you think the current government setup will allow for a broader deal to be made with the IMF, or is it water things down sufficiently that no one's really willing to take that risk?

Sharan Grewal [00:15:49] I mean I think Sarah is right in that the IMF and the international community more generally always turns a blind eye to those, normally strict requirements of not increasing the public sector wages, and so in a sense it leads all sides to be winners, that the UGTT  can say 'look, we fought for this.' The government can say 'look we came to an agreement', and the IMF is the one always having to compromise on those conditions that it had set. And so in that sense, yes there is a deal that's going to continue, but it's unclear how long that song and dance can continue. I mean it's more of the same, which hasn't been working, and so I'm not sure if it's actually going to improve Tunisia's economy.

Sharan Grewal [00:16:25] The one thing though that could be new, is what more can be done about corruption. Youssef Chahed had started a war on corruption - hasn't really gone too far. There was also attempts to try to get corrupt businessmen to go through some sort of arbitration process and give back some of the wealth that they had illegally got under Ben Ali. That really hasn't gone anywhere, but that could be another avenue, that would be more of a domestic solution, than the international aid for instance. That could also help kickstart Tunisia's economy, if they can figure out some way to deal with corruption domestically.

Sarah Yerkes [00:17:00] There's one more thing that's also not working Indonesia's favor, which is that each year you get past the revolution, there's a little bit of this foreign assistance fatigue, or revolutionary fatigue. And I've seen this in interviews with EU officials as well as U.S. officials, where they've said you know do you think Tunisia can even take any more money, or have they reached their absorbers have capacity. I don't think so. I think they can take more assistance. But both the U.S. amount that they give is much lower than the E.U.'s, so when the E.U. is sitting they're saying they're re-evaluating what they're giving to Tunisia, that they're not sure that they need as much, or they can even take as much. That's a big problem and so I think Sharan's right, you have to rein in corruption, that will bring a lot more money into the coffers, but also something has to change. There's a lot of different ways it can change. And I tend to be optimistic that maybe in this next government that will come into place in 2020, we'll have different political actors; someone who's going to be able to actually take this on and really do something to help Tunisia move forward domestically, but also gaining more international support.

Alistair Taylor [00:17:57] Moving on to the broader regional environment which you obviously touched on earlier, I'd like to discuss Algeria and Libya, starting with Algeria and starting with you Sarah. How is what's happening there being perceived in Tunisia, both on a popular level, as well as in terms of the government response?

Sarah Yerkes [00:18:14] Tunisian officials and the Tunisian people are of two minds. One is that they are proud and rightly so, that what they did in 2010 and 2011 is maybe being repeated, I hesitate to say that we're going to see a revolution in Algeria, but I do think the difference between Algeria today, and Tunisia in 2010, is that you have Tunisia having a successful revolution. So I think that certainly has helped and given some confidence to the protesters. But the other side of that is that there's potential chaos. And Tunisia already has this very dangerous situation along its border with Algeria. The Mount Chambi region, where you see regular attacks, mostly an insurgency. Most of the victims tend to be Tunisian soldiers, not civilians, but still the idea that Algeria could unravel, that the Algerian militaries could be less responsive, is a big threat. I will say, I just very recently heard comments by the Tunisian minister of defense, on the record, who said that he has full faith in the Algerian army, cooperation is still fully there, but that could change, that could deteriorate idea. The idea that you could have a Democratic Algeria down the road would be very positive for Tunisia, as long as you maintain that military cooperation. We don't know where Algeria's going to go and it's likely to be a lot more chaotic before it stabilizes.

Alistair Taylor [00:19:28] Sure. On Libya obviously it's an entirely different kettle of fish. The civil war is ongoing. General Haftar has launched this offensive against Tripoli so scrambling to pieces. What's the response been to that?

Sharan Grewal [00:19:40] So if Algeria is the looming potential crisis; Libya is the crisis today and it's the immediate threat to Tunisia. So there's a couple different aspects of the threat: increase in refugees coming from Libya, trying to escape the disaster that has resulted as a result of General Haftar's moves but in addition there is a fear of spillover of violence in particular coming over the border to Tunisia. So defense minister Zbidi yesterday also on the record had said that there are some 160 potential terrorists that are trying to cross over the border into Tunisia. On the other hand the Tunisian military and security forces have done very well in monitoring the border and they have increased their strength on the border to deal with this threat. And so we hope that there will be no spillover of violence. But that is certainly the immediate threat and the immediate focus of the Tunisian government.

Alistair Taylor [00:20:27] Sarah also on the foreign relations front; the Italian prime minister recently wrapped up a visit to Tunisia. What came out of that and how much of his visit was about the situation in Libya?

Sarah Yerkes [00:20:36] So the relationship with Italy, a lot of this is about Libya, and a lot of this is about migration. Tunisia is incredibly close to Italy physically. Sharan mentioned Libyan refugees coming into Tunisia. Tunisia has also become a major exporter of migrants. So I think in 2018 they were the number one exporter of migrants to Italy.

Alistair Taylor [00:20:56] That's a new development.

Sarah Yerkes [00:20:56] Yes. So whereas North Africa in general in Tunisia is one of the countries that used to be much more of a transit country, they've now become the exporter. So a lot of the discussion is about that. A lot of it was certainly about Libya as well. But this is something that is on the mind of the Italians as well as the Tunisians. How do you prevent this, I mean some of it is brain drain, but a lot of it is people that we were talking about earlier, that are just really frustrated and fed up and see a better life for themselves in Europe, and you know you can get on a boat in Tunisia and get to Italy in not that long.

Alistair Taylor [00:21:25] We're running out of time here and should probably wrap things up. But before we conclude, Sharan, what will you be paying particularly close attention to in the next few months in the run up to the elections?

Sharan Grewal [00:21:34] A couple of things; the first is how the parties are able to position themselves moving forward; as Sarah mentioned, it's difficult to see any differentiation in terms of their economic policies but as they start to develop a platform, will they start to differentiate, for instance Ennahda, Tahya Tounes being more supportive, if not openly supportive, of the IMF reforms, but acknowledging that that is a need that must go forward, whereas other parties, perhaps popular front and others that are aligned with UGTT, being much more against that. If you see this differentiation in terms of policy platforms, I think that would be a good sign in terms of having some healthy debate over the way forward. So that would be one and the second is not just in their policies, but in terms of the party structures are they able to unify, are they able, first of all internally, to be democratic, but also to for instance, have some coalitions between the different non-Islamist parties. For instance moving forward into the elections so that there is some more stability and ability to find consensus afterwards.

Alistair Taylor [00:22:33] Sarah any final thoughts here?

Sarah Yerkes [00:22:35] Yeah I think I'm really interested to see where Prime Minister Chahed goes. Interestingly, in Tahya Tounes'  conference, or some sort of meeting they had recently, they said he has not officially joined the party. So whereas it was really formed to support him, he hasn't made his decision yet. He spoke at the conference, but we'll see. And I'm really curious to see if he's going to run for president, if he's going to try to be prime minister, and related to that the relationship between the presidency and the prime minister, the head of government, the head of state, President Essebsi has put forward some ideas that he wants to strengthen the presidency. That seems to have gone nowhere and I think now that he's said he's going to retire that this probably won't go anywhere. But this is a big question of where does power really lie in Tunisia? It's supposed to be within the prime ministership, but it hasn't really truly been that under President Essebsi, so paying attention to that to see how things are going to shift in that way. And maybe no one really that interesting will run for president because everyone's really realizing that the prime ministership is where it's at. Which could be an interesting development.

Alistair Taylor [00:23:31] We'll have to leave things there but we'll be certainly keeping a close eye on the situation moving forward. Sarah, Sharan thank you both for joining us today.

Sharan Grewal [00:23:37] Thank you for having me.

Sarah Yerkes [00:23:38] Thank you.

Alistair Taylor [00:23:39] And thank you as well to our audience for listening in and to our production team for their work on today's program. We will see all of you next week.