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Can Tunisia’s Democracy Survive?

Summary:
Less than a year before the next general election, scheduled for late 2019, Tunisia is again in crisis. The Arab world’s most promising democratic experiment can still avert a political meltdown, but it needs help. TUNIS – When anti-government protests swept across the Arab world in 2011, Tunisia seemed poised to emerge better off. Yet, by 2013, the democratic process was almost derailed by unfulfilled economic promises, political and ideological disagreements, and foreign meddling. Fortunately, local and international mediation then helped to avert catastrophe and pave the way for elections. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images Previous Next But less than a year before

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Less than a year before the next general election, scheduled for late 2019, Tunisia is again in crisis. The Arab world’s most promising democratic experiment can still avert a political meltdown, but it needs help.

TUNIS – When anti-government protests swept across the Arab world in 2011, Tunisia seemed poised to emerge better off. Yet, by 2013, the democratic process was almost derailed by unfulfilled economic promises, political and ideological disagreements, and foreign meddling. Fortunately, local and international mediation then helped to avert catastrophe and pave the way for elections.

But less than a year before the next general election, scheduled for late 2019, the country is again in crisis. This time, however, mediators are either disinterested in solutions or part of the problem. In a world focused on the war in Syria, instability in Libya, Russian assertiveness, European uncertainty, and the tweets of an isolationist American president, Tunisia has faded from the headlines. Tunisia’s democratic breakdown would, one assumes, attract international attention; but by then, it will be too late.

The current stalemate began soon after the December 2014 presidential election. In February 2015, President Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular political party Nidaa Tounes, struck a deal with Rached Ghannouchi, president of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, to form a coalition government. But soon after, Nidaa Tounes was beset by infighting and, in January 2016, dozens of the party’s MPs resigned in protest, giving Ennahda a parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Essebsi’s protégé and appointee, has been challenging the 92-year-old president’s inner circle, throwing Nidaa Tounes further into chaos. By mid-2018, as the party’s turmoil peaked, Ghannouchi was supporting Chahed rather than the president’s son and groomed heir, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. The president, reacting either to a sense of betrayal or out of fear for his legacy, responded by renewing his criticism of Ennahda and by launching an investigation into allegations that Ghannouchi’s party is tied to terrorism.

Moreover, Essebsi and his clan embraced populist rhetoric and restarted courting the anti-Islamist Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis. Essebsi even endorsed a law to give men and women equal inheritance rights, a measure that is supported by many secular Tunisians and praised by the international community, but loathed by Ennahda’s conservative base.

Amid this brewing political turmoil, rumors of coups and attempted coups have intensified. In June 2018, Tunisia’s interior minister was fired over an alleged coup attempt. In November, Nidaa Tounes’ secretary-general accused Chahed of planning his own putsch. In December, Qatari-backed news outlets warned of a

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