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Assassination, Resignations, and Reshufflings: Tunisia’s Latest Developments

[News stand vendors wait for customers amid newspapers headlining on opposition leader Chokri Belaid's assassination, Thursday 7 February 2013 in Tunis. Image by Amine Landoulsi/AP Photo] [News stand vendors wait for customers amid newspapers headlining on opposition leader Chokri Belaid's assassination, Thursday 7 February 2013 in Tunis. Image by Amine Landoulsi/AP Photo]

The Beginning: Rise of the Troika

On 23 October 2011, Tunisians took to the polls resulting in Ennahda’s electoral victory. An Islamist party previously oppressed by ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, a majority of voters hoped this opposition party would bring much-needed change following the revolution that began a year prior. A coalition, more commonly referred to as the Troika, was quickly formed to lead the new government, with Ennahda’s Hamadi Jebali as Prime Minister, Ettakatol’s Mustapha Ben Jaafer as President of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), and Congress for the Republic’s (CPR) Moncef Markzouki as President. The three parties that received the highest number of votes during that election represent this coalition, the principle task of which was to spearhead the NCA’s writing of Tunisia’s new constitution. 

The past sixteen months of governing since Ennahda’s victory have been marked by frustrations felt by all echelons of Tunisian society, interrupted only by initial moments of hope after a relatively calm political transition. During this time, the government has failed to address the very issues that spurred a revolution, namely high rates of unemployment, a lagging economy, and the neglect of policies guiding regional development. A new trend that did develop under the leadership of Ennahda was the growing sense of insecurity across the country, recently marked by the burning of mausoleums, violent attacks against artists and journalists, arbitrary arrests, assault of American institutions, and hostility against most behavior theoretically against the grain of Islamic ideals. 

The Tipping Point: Chokri Belaid’s Assassination

Through this cycle of violence, Tunisia will add the date of 6 February to the ledgers of the country’s history. It is on this day that Chokri Belaid, a prominent lawyer, leading member of one of Tunisia’s leftist parties, Front Populaire, and ardent critic of governing party Ennahda, was shot and killed in front of his home in Tunis.

Belaid’s politically-motivated death, the first since Salah Ben Youssef’s 1961 assassination, sparked mass movements throughout the country. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) called for a general strike on 7 February, only the second in history since Black Thursday in 1978. Tens of thousands of Tunisians gathered mostly peacefully for Belaid’s funeral in Tunis. Meanwhile, protests across the country—including Gafsa, Sfax, and Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution is presumed to have begun in 2010—raged on.

The following day, 8 February, counter protests brought Ennahda supporters to the street as they denounced French involvement in Tunisia by shouting “France Degage!” and remained fervent in their party support.

The Deal on the Cabinet Reshuffle

On the day of Belaid’s assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali addressed the nation to condemn this “act of terrorism” and announced his intent to form a new government of non-partisan technocrats. Jebali apparently declared making this move without consulting any other political party, including his own Ennahda party. Reactions varied across the social and political spectrum, leaving some angry, others supportive, and many in search for answers. He reaffirmed his decision on Saturday, after consultations with legal advisors, among them constitutional lawyer Yadh Ben Achour, former president of the High Authority for the Achievement of the Objectives of the Revolution (HAARO), who enjoys significant popular legitimacy.

In response to allegations concerning the illegality of his decision to form a cabinet of technocrats, Jebali referred to article 17 on the provisional organization of public powers. This article of the constitution renders what he calls a “cabinet reshuffle” legal and not subject to the approval of the Constituent Assembly or President of the Republic. Jebali claims that this “cabinet reshuffle” would avoid the complicated, and riskier process of dissolving the government. But under Tunisian law, each new cabinet minister would still need individual approval from the Assembly – where Jebali's Ennahda party has a majority. “All the ministries will be independent, including the interior, justice, and foreign affairs ministries,” he said on Saturday, adding, “If it is accepted…I will continue to carry out my duties as head of the government. Otherwise, I will ask the President of the Republic to find another candidate to form a new government.”

Candidate selection for the new government suggested by Jebali depends on four listed criteria, including competence in the relevant discipline, no previous implication in any actions harming the population, no political association, and a commitment to neutrality and promise not to run during the next government elections. No names of potential candidates have yet been suggested and no one is publicly acknowledging that many potentially eligible technocrats served under the Ben Ali regime and could therefore be subject to the public’s request to “degage,” if chosen. 

This decision has incited varying feedback from media and blog writers within and outside the country. While some dub it a “kamikaze act,” “a gamble,” or a “courageous act,” others see it as “an impossible challenge” or as a decision taken due to a lack of alternatives, with most of these terms and phrases coined on social media sites, popular news, and blog sources. Many have pointed to Jebali’s engagement not to run in the next government elections as problematizing questions of whether Ennahda’s secretary general has abandoned his ambition for an extended political career, whether he is sincere in wanting to protect Tunisia’s interests, and what his reasons might be for countering his party. 

Reactions: Denouncement, Silence and Resignation

Jebali’s own party, Ennahda, has slammed his decision to dissolve the government and form a cabinet of technocrats, saying that the Prime Minister did not consult the party first. According to a high-ranking Ennahda spokesperson, Abdelhamid Jelassi, his party is against the creation of a caretaker government. Tunisia does not need "a technical government", he said, "it needs one made up of politicians.” Jebali's decision took Ennahda by surprise, and especially his decision to move forth with his plan without his party’s support. To date, Ennahda has not officially commented on its reactions to Jelassi’s statement, leading to speculations of an internal split.

On Sunday, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi played down the party crisis. "There will be no division within Ennahda, which is committed to its institutions," he said in an interview published in the Algerian daily El Khabar. "The party is very strict when it comes to its unity. Differences in opinion exist within the party and are freely expressed." 

At the Ennahda rally on Saturday, some party members criticized plans for a caretaker technocrat cabinet, saying that legitimate politicians should lead the government and that Islamists had already made too many concessions to the opposition’s demands. Lotfi Zitoun, a senior party official, told the crowd: "We are here to support legitimacy, but if you prefer the power of the street, look at the streets today. We have this power."

Immediately following Jebali’s 6 February statement regarding the formation of a technocratic governing body, opposition parties expressed general support for the idea. Ridha Belhaj, executive director of the newest secularist party, Nidaa Tunis, announced that this decision should be subject to discussion amongst all political parties. Mehdi Ben Gharbia of Alliance Democratique, a party composed of varying political ideologies with the intent of reducing political polarization, was in agreement with Jebali, provided that members of Ennahda were also on board. Sami Tahri, secretary general of the largest labor union, the UGTT, declared that the formation of a technocratic governing body was part of their own mandate. On the same day, the opposition called for the resignation of specific Ennahda ministers, and announced the suspension of their membership to the constituent assembly. 

In the ensuing days, opposition parties have aired on the side of caution, choosing silence over mediatized reactions.  The National Assembly’s president, Mustapha Ben Jafaar of Ettakatol, also part of the governing Troika, remains unresponsive. However, Samy Razgallah, a party member, said that Ettakatol supports Jebali’s idea but needs to see the list of suggested candidates before fully endorsing it. 

Meanwhile, the Troika’s third party, President Moncef Mazouki’s Congress for the Republic (CPR), threatened to step down. CPR leader, Chokri Yacoub, told AFP that a decision would be announced on Monday on the possible resignation of the CPR's three ministers and two secretaries of state. Speaking to Reuters news agency, CPR official Samir Ben Amor declared, “This decision has nothing to do with the prime minister's decision to form a government of technocrats,” adding, “We have been saying for a week that if the foreign and justice ministers were not changed, we would withdraw from the government.” 

A Decisive Week Ahead

In his letter to the political parties on establishing a new governing body composed of technocrats, Jebali stressed the country’s dangerous situation, the threat of escalating political violence, and the urgent need to address these issues. In it, he also declared the Troika’s failure at successfully leading the country and listed the four priority areas he believes the new government should focus on, namely 1) ensuring the security of citizens and society, 2) ensuring improvement in regional development policies, job creation, and monitoring the purchasing power of citizens, 3) fighting corruption to achieve the goals of the revolution, and 4) writing a constitution for all Tunisians and organizing free elections as soon as possible. 

These priorities align with what Ennahda promised the Tunisian people before its October 2011 election, priorities unfulfilled by a government under Jebali’s leadership and priorities. No explanations have been given as to how the new proposed governing body will carry out these priorities and how long they will take.  The major Tunisian daily, La Presse, gave an upbeat assessment on Sunday: “The government of technocrats announced by Hamadi Jebali appears to be on the right track, giving hope to large segments of public opinion that were totally demoralized by the assassination of Belaid."

The question is, will Ennahda agree to the “cabinet reshuffle” and will it come into effect? 

The announcement on Sunday that President Moncef Marzouki's secular party is quitting the coalition government in anger at Ennahda's handling of the country's crisis might actually strengthen officials such as Jebali, who are seeking a compromise, said North Africa analyst Riccardo Fabiani of the London-based Eurasia Group. "Now Ennahda no longer has a government coalition to kick out Jebali," Fabiani said, adding that as the other parties quit the coalition, that leaves the technocratic option as the only alternative. "Now Jebali has the upper hand. He is even stronger."

Jebali declared that if parties represented in the constituent assembly without being put to a vote accepted the “cabinet reshuffle,” he would remain Prime Minister. Otherwise, he said, he would resign. Wanting to keep him as their secretary general, it is widely speculated that Ennahda will agree to Jebali’s decision. 

If Jebali’s proposal for a new governing body does not go through, it is uncertain how Ennahda will proceed with the resignation of two figures of the leading coalition and a number of ministers. It is equally uncertain how the opposition will choose to proceed in the face of a decentralized Ennahda.

Circulating rumors allude to military interference, whose presence was widely felt in Tunis amid tensions after the killing of Belaid. In a press conference held on Saturday, Defense minister Abdelkarim Zebidi said, "the Tunisian army does not act toward the goals of any individual or faction. The army works to protect the state bodies and civilian state structure and stands at equal distance from all political parties."

The way forward is unclear. This coming week will determine the fate of Tunisia’s leadership and of its future. It will also determine that of Jebali’s, who will either succeed in regaining control of the government, or will be forced to submit his resignation and further damage his political career.  No matter the outcome, the country deserves a best-case scenario in which Belaid’s assassination is thoroughly and immediately investigated, and the government carries out its responsibilities by protecting its citizens, finalizing the constitution, and calling for new elections.

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