Tunisian Parties End Stalemate, Agree to “Mixed” Regime

Secular parties want a powerful presidency to balance against the Islamists’ plurality.

Tunisia’s politicians ended months of political stalemate with an agreement that could lead to the writing of a new constitution, one of the leaders of the North African country’s ruling Islamist party said on Friday.

“We have overcome the impasse, we are heading toward a mixed regime where neither the head of state nor the head of the government will have supreme control over the executive power,” Rached Ghannouchi, one of the founders of the Ennahda movement, told a national radio station.

Ghannouchi’s Ennahda is the largest party and demanded a parliamentary government to replace the defunct political structure of former Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s. Smaller parties wanted a powerful presidency to balance against the Islamists’ plurality in the Constituent Assembly, however, where they hold 40 percent of the seats.

The assembly has been in session since November 2011, less than a year after Ben Ali had been the first dictator who resigned in a wave of “Arab Spring” uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa.

Incumbent president Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, is a secular Muslim and leftist whose party got less than 9 percent support in the last election.

Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, who was appointed in March after the assassination of a secular opposition leader prompted his predecessor, Hamadi Jebali, to resign, insists that a new constitution should be adopted before the end of the year when parliamentary and presidential elections are due to be held.

Although Ennahda claims to be moderate, opposition parties regard warily what they see as a drift toward Islamism under its stewardship and worry that, like their counterparts in Egypt, the Islamists might seek to do away with secular laws altogether if they win a majority in the next election.

While 98 percent of Tunisians is Muslim, the previous regime banned headscarfs from public spaces, closed mosques and persecuted religious activists, including Ennahda members, as “terrorists.” Since its downfall, attendance at prayer services is up and religious schools where students are separated according to gender, unthinkable under Ben Ali’s rule, are growing in number.

For most Tunisians, the main concern is not the future political constellation of their country, rather rising food and fuel prices and high unemployment. Whereas joblessness stood at 13 percent in 2010, high enough to fuel a revolution the following year, it rose to almost 19 percent after Ben Ali’s ouster and averaged some 17 percent through 2012. Industrial action, once outlawed, now regularly disrupts production and public services. Foreign investment and tourism have dwindled and are unlikely to increase until the country seems more stable.