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Middle East

Tunisia's Ennahda withdraws - but why?

After weeks of protest, the Islamist Ennahda party has said it will withdraw from government, hand over power to technocrats and enter talks. It seems to be frightened of going the way of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt.

Within three weeks, Tunisia is supposed to have a new transitional government. Within a month, there should be new elections. And the constitutional convention should start working again as soon as possible. At least, that's what they're saying in Tunis.

After weeks of negotiations, Tunisia has adopted a tight timetable in order to solve the political crisis which began with the murder of the opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi at the end of July. The governing Islamist Ennahda party is being accused by its opponents of being partly responsible for the killing, which was carried out by extremists. Since then, there's been unrest on the streets of Tunisia as the opposition has repeatedly called for mass protest. Now Ennahda has said it is withdrawing entirely from government and handing back all its posts.

Mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi during his funeral procession towards the nearby cemetery of El-Jellaz REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

The killing of Mohamed Brahmi led to weeks of protests

'Step in the right direction'

"I hope that means they've given way," says Thomas Hasel of the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science in Berlin. He believes that many Tunisian opposition politicians see the plan for a national dialogue as a "step in the right direction." But one will have to keep a close eye on whether the experts who are to form the transitional government are really politically independent.

Hasel says the Islamists' withdrawal from government is definitely due to their fear that they could share the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. President Morsi's overthrow was closely watched in Tunisia. The violence which followed and the court ban of the Brotherhood seemed like a warning: Hasel says that one could sense that in the speeches of Ennahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who was warning that "something similar" could happen in Tunisia.

Preventing a spiral of violence

Elisabeth Braune, head of the Tunis office of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, also believes that events in Egypt have had an influence in Tunisia: "There was a clear possibility - as there had been in Egypt - that Tunisia could have entered a spiral of violence and moved towards civil war."

So the weeks of negotiations have to be seen all the more positively: "The fact that the negotiations were so tough and thorough seems to me to be a sign that, on the various sides, there was a broad awareness that it was not an option for Tunisia to go the same way."

The Islamist-led Ennahda clearly won the first free elections in autumn 2011 after the overthrow of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January of the same year. It's been ruling in a coalition with the center-left CPR (Congress for the Republic), led by President Moncef Marzouki, and the social democratic Ettakol party led by Ben Jafaar. But that hasn't led to political stability in a country which is often called "the motherland of the Arab Spring."

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks during a news conference in Tunis REUTERS/ Zoubeir Souissi

Rached Ghannouchi says he is worried that Ennahda could share the fate of the Muslim Brothers

Delayed constitution?

Directly after they took office, the three ruling parties said they would draft a new constitution within a year. "But the Ennahda is often accused of having deliberately delayed the process," says Braune. Many members of parliament had complained that the issues they raised in the constitutional commission were not being considered, and that proposals which had been agreed and formulated were not being included.

Braune believes that Brahmi's killing was only the catalyst for new protests after months of frustration. Fifty deputies resigned and demonstrated in front of the constitutional assembly.

The 'Quartet' talks to Ennahda

Negotiations which started then with Ennahda were taken over two months ago by the so-called Quartet, made up of the trade union movement UGTT, the employers' federation, the human rights league and the lawyers' organization. The UGTT is seen especially as an effective mediator - it was the only union movement allowed under Ben Ali and still has significant influence in state-owned companies. With more than half a million members out of the ten million Tunisians, the UGTT can mobilize masses against Ennahda. Hasel believes that the Islamists were worried about the growing power of the street.

Observers remain skeptical

Some of Ennahda's opponents believe that the Islamists' readiness to give way is merely a cover for their political tactics. According to Hasel, "One is aware that the Ennahda is inclined to move one way and then the other when it comes to retaining power."

Braune is also skeptical: "I heard the statements by the party leader Ghannouchi ten days ago, saying that the party should engage with the proposals of the Quartet." On the same weekend, other members of the party's executive were saying "exactly the opposite." Braune needs convincing: "I'll have to see it first," she says. "There's been an awful lot of talk."

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