Tunisia. False Coup, Real Political Crisis

The dismissal on June 6 of Lofti Brahem, the Minister of Home Affairs, gave rise to the rumor of a coup in the offing. It was a symptom of a growing restiveness in Tunisia while the sensitive issues are piling up and the institutions have trouble asserting their authority.

ARP, 11 September 2017. Lofti Brahem, centre, with Abdelkrim Zbidi, Minister of Defence to his left and Ridha Chalghoum, Minister of Finance to his right.
Mohamed Krit/Newzulu/Alamy Live News

The world of politics is made up of visible components—institutions, parties, public figures—and also of more abstract entities: money, regional, tribal and familial allegiances, foreign influences, individual mentalities, compromising documents. . . Their existence only comes to light through more or less explicable events, such as a media campaign, a declaration, an appointment. Only a handful of insiders are able to put them together, understand the logic behind them, a purview which makes it possible to decipher their meaning and to act in consequence. These “invisible” factors tend to have all the greater weight when the official entities are afflicted with doubts, weaknesses and in-fighting.

While the negotiations in view of a probable cabinet reshuffle seem to drag on forever, the dismissal on June 6 of Lotfi Brahem, the Minister of Home Affairs may well be one such demonstration. On June 2, Premier Youssef Chahed had issued a 48-hour ultimatum to apprehend Neji Gharsalli, former Minister of Home Affairs (February 2015 —January 2016) who appeared before the military court last winter for plotting against state security. The ultimatum was rescinded the very next day but now appears to have been a harbinger of Brahem’s fall from grace and one more expression of what is going on behind the scenes. The dismissal was claimed to be justified by the failure to prevent the departure of clandestine migrants after 84 people died in a shipwreck off the Kerkennah islands, but this appears to be little more than a flimsy pretext.

Set Aside From President Beji Caid Essebsi

As a consequence, there is a strong temptation to implicate those “invisible” forces and in an article published on June 15, Nicolas Beau succumbed to it quite incautiously, going so far as to describe in detail plans for a coup drawn up in cahoots with the head of the Emirati secret service at a meeting in Jerba at the end of May. In his words, “The Tunisian devised with the Emirati a road map meant to bring about changes at the top: revocation of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed; possible appointment in his place of Ben Ali’s former Defence Minister, Kamel Morjane; ultimately the removal of President Beji himself for medical reasons. [. . .] The plan [. . .] was primarily aimed at evicting once and for all from the Tunisian political scene the Islamists of Ennahdha.” The author is well known in Tunisia since the publication, in 2009, of La Régente de Carthage: Main basse sur la Tunisie (co-authored with Catherine Graciet) about the shady dealings of Leila Trabelsi, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s wife, fuelled by the confidential disclosures of rivals fallen from grace after the rise to power of the Trabelsi clan. Sold under the counter in Tunisia until 2011, the book helped to discredit the regime. This time, however, the revelations are not really taken seriously in Tunis. Needless to say, the Emirati ambassador issued a flat denial, as did Brahem himself, arguing that at the time of that Djerba meeting he was in Tunis. But Nicolas Beau’s scoop, necessarily based on private talks with political players and interpretations suggested by them must be taken with a grain of salt, to say the least.

A Disturbing Authoritarian

But such a theory does not come out of thin air. Lofti Brahem’s personality does lend itself to this kind of speculation. The choice of the head of the National Guard to be Minister of Home Affairs in September 2017 was the sign of a threefold policy shift. To begin with, it was the first time since the revolution (and in fact since 1995) that this ministry was headed by a member of the security forces. Then too, his appointment was part of the powerful comeback of personalities from the Tunisian Sahel (along with Abdelkrim Zbidi as Minister of Defence) in order to strengthen Beji Caid Essebsi’s hand concerning Premier Youssef Chahed. The latter is becoming increasingly independent and is seen as a growing threat to the President’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, chairman of Nidaa Tounes. Indeed, ever since Tunisia became independent in 1956, the Sahelian elites (like Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali) and their Tunis rivals have depended on each other to consolidate their control of the State. And finally the choice of a figure known for his lack of sympathy for Ennahda was not in keeping with the “consensus” between the two allies in the government coalition.

His reputation as a man of iron quickly earned him a political dimension which he seems to have cultivated deliberately. The Tunisian e-media, an echo chamber for inter-clan fighting, have maintained around his person an aura favourable or hostile to his ambitions, validating the idea that these were indeed real. His trip to Saudi Arabia at the end of February 2018 to meet with King Salman aroused suspicions and continues to fuel speculations. The trip broke with the customary protocol even though it was justified by a need for security cooperation. In the eyes of Youssef Chahed, he was becoming too autonomous as a minister and a potential rival. For the Chief of State, Brahem represents a free electron in his delicate balancing act, one that is difficult to control. For Ennahda, he could become a not very accommodating decision maker, despite his very strict recommendations concerning the observance of public fasting during the month of Ramadan. Perhaps he was simply trying to gather support in view of his imminent fall from grace. If so, it was a wasted effort and his dismissal was good news for all the main actors in Tunisian politics.

Emirates: A Thwarted Interference

Emirati manipulations in Tunisia are an open secret. Indeed, Tunisia is a “field of confrontations between the Gulf countries,” between the Qatari-Turkish axis (losing steam since 2013) and the Emirati-Saudi-Egyptian axis. As Le Monde revealed in October 2017, Abu Dhabi has no lack of brokers on the spot trying to interfere in Tunisian politics, as much to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood as to prevent the spread of democracy likely to compromise the interests of the ruling clans. We are witnessing the return of “securitocracy.”

Yet we must not overestimate the impact of this influence in Tunisia. Only a few minor players have been recruited and above all it has met with strong opposition from the Algerian side, as was illustrated at the last meeting between the Home Affairs Ministers of the Arab League at the end of March in Algiers. While the Saudis and the Emiratis were urging their North African partners to join in the offensive against Iran, targeting as well Qatar and their political allies inspired by the Muslim brotherhood (specifically Ennahda), Algeria turned them down flat. Indeed the Algerian model has two constant guidelines: no interference in the domestic struggles of “brother countries” and the preservation of a national consensus which includes those forces representing political Islam in order to forestall radicalisation and terrorism. In association with the Tunisian tradition of diplomatic even-handedness, this makes a solid bulwark keep the Gulf countries’ manoeuvres at a distance. Thus there was no need of a planned coup to justify Lotfi Brahem’s exclusion, and such flagrant Emirati interference would place any Tunisian politician involved in an untenable position, both at home and abroad.

Hot Topics and Feeble Institutions

On the other hand, the sudden appearance of a coup theory is a symptom of the undeniable restiveness of the Tunisian political class and the instability of the current situation.

Hot topics are piling up: how to carry out economic reforms, how to compose the local majorities for the mayoral elections in the light of the May 6 ballot; to which must be added, under pressure from the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and from the leadership of Nidaa Tounes, the prospect of a cabinet reshuffle and the choice of a new Prime Minister. The stakes here are heightened by the prospect of parliamentary and above all presidential elections in 2019, and the increased pressure from the IMF, determined no longer to allow Tunisia any exemptions regarding the conditionalities of financial aid. The fierceness of the coming electoral battle will certainly be aggravated by strong social protests prompted by the restrictions placed on the government sector payroll, and the price-subsidy and health insurance reforms demanded by international donors.

Yet the frameworks for negotiating all these issues have never seemed so weak. With the intention of uniting all the political parties and trade unions behind a governmental program, the President of the Republic created a forum for negotiations parallel to the official institutions which was formalised on 13 July 2016 by the Carthage agreement, a second version of which has been under discussion for several months now. Entitled “the Quartet for National Dialogue,” the method had already proven fruitful in 2013 for surmounting a political crisis, but at that time parliament was seriously weakened by its loss of legitimacy and the internal cohesion of the signatories guaranteed the efficacy of the decisions taken.

Today the situation is reversed, Parliament’s legitimacy is unchallenged whereas the protagonists are racked with doubt.

The relative advantage gained by Ennahda over Nidaa Tounes in the local elections which revealed a popular distrust of the political class as a whole upset the delicate balance within the governmental alliance and made the opponents of the Islamo-conservative party even more nervous. Despite their ups and downs, the personal relations between Beji Caid Essebsi and Rashed Ghannouchi, the chairman of Ennadha, have played an important role in the handling of the political situation since August 2013. Today, however, they are not so smooth.

Since its losses in the local elections, the presidential party is in a state of turmoil, aggravated by its leadership crisis, its poor organisation and lack of any project. The party chairman, Hafedh Caid Essebsi and the Prime Minister blame one another for the electoral setback. An elective congress planned for the end of the year should clarify all these issues but until then the crisis affecting Nidaa has contaminated the whole institutional system.

However encouraging its relative electoral success, Ennahda remains as isolated as ever, with no economic or social propositions, and Rashed Ghannouchi’s own colleagues sometimes find his strategic leadership confusing. And finally, the UGTT is torn between its traditional role of collaboration with the government and accompaniment of reforms and the hostility of the rank and file towards the austerity policies and especially the wage cuts. The union leadership is among the loudest voices demanding Youssef Chahed’s resignation and is criticised by many members for its involvement in politics to the detriment of union work.

The parallel dialogue method has stripped the State institutions of a part of their prerogatives. Not only does the inadequacy of the political personnel make them less efficient, but the method tends to merge the different subjects into one huge bargaining process with all the issues bunched together—the choice of a minister or a mayor, administrative appointments, economic measures—to the detriment of each area’s specific logic.

A Breeding Ground for Rumours

The sum of all these uncertainties may well depreciate the democratic aura which has benefited Tunisia in the eyes of its international donors. And it favours the rise of a “Napoleonic” figure. However, the role has not yet been cast. Lofti Brahem was in the running, but for the moment he has had to step aside. The office of Prime Minister gives Youssef Chahed some advantage, but he is far from making his weight felt in all the sectors of government and the political class. Other politicians are girding themselves for the 2019 election. The fierceness of the competition favours the appearance of compromising documents meant to silence one’s opponents, appeals to foreign backers to compensate for a lack of domestic support thereby inviting competing interference efforts from abroad. In short, the invasion of the political arena by those “invisible” forces. If the visible players, the institutions, prove unable to regain control of the situation quickly, unable to offer a mobilising vision and strategy for the future, the rumours of a putsch, suspicions of dirty tricks, foreign interference and “revelations” will continue to flourish on a fertile breeding ground.