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Searching For Stability, Tunisia Stumbles

Tunisia's Prime Minister-designate, Ali Larayedh, speaks during a Feb. 26 press conference. His priorities will include forming a stable government and overseeing the writing of a new constitution.
Fethi Belaid
AFP/Getty Images
Tunisia's Prime Minister-designate, Ali Larayedh, speaks during a Feb. 26 press conference. His priorities will include forming a stable government and overseeing the writing of a new constitution.

Tunisia took the lead in the Arab Spring back in 2011. Its revolution was swift and largely peaceful. Within months, an assembly was elected to write a new constitution.

As other Arab countries grew more violent and chaotic, Tunisia seemed to be showing the way for an orderly transition away from authoritarian rule.

But it's been getting more complicated in Tunisia recently. The prime minister resigned, an opposition leader was assassinated, and public discontent is mounting with Ennahda, the moderate Islamist movement that won elections back in October 2011.

So is Tunisia hitting a bump in the road as it remakes itself, or are these the signs of a looming crisis?

Last week, Ali Larayedh from Ennahda was appointed as the new prime minister after Hamadi Jebali resigned. Tunisia's government must now appoint leaders to a number of important positions, including the Interior, Justice and Foreign ministries. The country still needs a new constitution and must set a date for elections.

The country is also suffering from a weak economy that has been unable to create jobs for the many young people who were at the forefront of the revolution two years ago.

Tunisia already has a coalition government composed of Ennahda and two secular parties. But there are still figures linked to the former regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled in January 2011 for exile in Saudi Arabia.

"A reshuffle is under way and if Ennahda can't go and cleanse the government of old regime elements, it'll lead to problems," says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Radwan Masmoudi, who heads the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Tunis, also emphasized that the Tunisian government must separate itself from the old leadership.

"Holding the old regime accountable has been delayed so far and remnants are still very much in power with only a dozen or so imprisoned," Masmoudi said. "Justice has to be applied or the people will not be satisfied."

The country's legal system is also under scrutiny following the recent killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

In addition, there are questions about the ability of Ennahda to stand up to the increasing presence of Salafists, or ultraconservative Muslims who are a growing force.

Salafists have been blamed for attacks on places that range from the U.S. Embassy to art galleries and Sufi shrines.

However, at present there are no broad-based calls for Islamic law, or Shariah, as part of the new constitution that must still be written.

Masmoudi emphasized the need for a timeline "as soon as possible." Only once a legal foundation is locked in, he said, can other matters such as the economy and international support — both financial and political — be addressed.

Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, "We have to remember that democracies don't sprout overnight; they need decades sometimes. But this population doesn't have a lot of patience anymore; they're anxious for predictability and stability."

Masmoudi, meanwhile, said that Tunisians and other Arab states will be looking for tangible progress in the next couple of years.

"Democracy has to succeed in Tunisia or people will start to question its benefits," he said. "And then the real threat of Salafists will arise as they'll present themselves as the only alternative left."

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Kiran Alvi
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