Tunisians should avoid the politics of polarisation

After a turbulent and highly polarising year, Tunisia’s passage of an election law on May 2 and the consequent upcoming elections give reason for optimism about the country’s transition. But challenges remain, and the underlying polarisation that has consumed Tunisian politics over the past few years still threatens what is viewed as the Arab Spring’s most successful state.

Polarisation brought the Tunisian government to a halt during summer last year. The parties were divided over key aspects of the transition: a parliamentary or presidential system, the role of Islam in politics and society, the fate of former regime figures, restrictions on free speech (including whether to ban blasphemy and takfir, or apostasy), gender equality and the role of women in society.

Although it is tempting to portray this as an issue of Islamists against secularists, that somewhat simplistic approach precludes understanding and ultimately negotiating the rifts between the various parties who each have their own ideas of what Tunisia should look like.

The governance style of Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist party that led the ruling coalition, caused many on the secular left to feel excluded. Growing opposition to Ennahda was made even starker by the events in Egypt at the time. The low point came with the assassination last July of Mohamed Brahimi, the outspoken leftist secular opposition leader and member of parliament. It was Tunisia’s second political assassination that year. Many blamed the killings on Ennahda (directly or indirectly) and the role it played in aggravating the political rifts.

A National Constituent Assembly sit-in followed, leading to the suspension of the assembly. This, along with a worsening economy and security challenges (both regionally and internally with the rise of extremist militancy), appeared to be sending Tunisia towards a dangerous crisis, perhaps joining other post-Arab Spring countries consumed by factional rivalries and deep political instability.

How Tunisia was able to address this crisis without widespread violence or military intervention demonstrates why the country is managing its transition more effectively than other post-revolutionary states in the region, but also why its challenges remain

In late summer 2013, the ruling coalition, the opposition and non-governmental bodies, including leading labour unions and other civil society organisations, negotiated a plan to take Tunisia out of the impasse and toward a national dialogue. As part of the negotiated road map, the National Constituent Assembly finalised and adopted the new constitution at the end of January, and a caretaker government took power.

While admirable on the surface, Ennahda’s acceptance of the road map and its agreement to cede power to a caretaker government was a political calculation. Given the trajectory of Tunisia, some in Ennahda feared the party could face a fate comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ennahda admitted to some mistakes in governing but also seemed confident that it could win the next elections. However, even fears among both the left and Islamists that the whole negotiation process could facilitate a return of former regime figures and counter-revolutionaries did not stand in the way of a compromise.

But the pragmatism that allowed Tunisia to regain some stability has not completely eased the polarisation that entrenched political and ideological disagreements about the future of the country. Tunisia’s greatest challenges require practical responses, but because many questions are viewed through the lens of polarisation, practical answers are few.

The economy requires attention and addressing the worsening security situation must be a priority. Since the revolution, the economy has struggled; GDP growth is lagging, inflation is high and trade deficits are putting a strain on foreign reserves. But perhaps the most significant challenge is that youth unemployment – one of the central drivers of the revolt in the first place – remains high. Instability and a lack of security along the Algerian and Libyan borders also require effective strategies that the current political environment has struggled to deliver.

Tunisia’s next government will only have a small margin for error, as it will be dealing with an exhausted populace demanding quick solutions to myriad issues. These issues will need to be resolved through political consensus. If this cannot be done, a return to the polarised political environment of last summer is likely and the country might not be able to step back from the brink a second time.

The resurgence of the security state in Egypt and factional violence in Libya demonstrate the consequences of failing to create a pluralistic political system capable of building consensus around key issues.

Looking ahead to the elections, tentatively planned for November, political parties are already seeking to strengthen their standings and preparing ways to exclude their opponents from forming a government. In these early stages there is too much focus on alliances and potential alliances and not enough on how to resolve the various economic, social and security issues. Although this sort of negotiation process is expected in the run-up to elections under normal circumstances, Tunisia is at a critical juncture. The country’s political forces will have to make sure that the mistakes of exclusion that produced the current situation do not occur again.

Intissar Fakir is the editor in chief of Sada, the Middle East journal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


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Email sent to Uber team from chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi

From: Dara

To: Team@

Date: March 25, 2019 at 11:45pm PT

Subj: Accelerating in the Middle East

Five years ago, Uber launched in the Middle East. It was the start of an incredible journey, with millions of riders and drivers finding new ways to move and work in a dynamic region that’s become so important to Uber. Now Pakistan is one of our fastest-growing markets in the world, women are driving with Uber across Saudi Arabia, and we chose Cairo to launch our first Uber Bus product late last year.

Today we are taking the next step in this journey—well, it’s more like a leap, and a big one: in a few minutes, we’ll announce that we’ve agreed to acquire Careem. Importantly, we intend to operate Careem independently, under the leadership of co-founder and current CEO Mudassir Sheikha. I’ve gotten to know both co-founders, Mudassir and Magnus Olsson, and what they have built is truly extraordinary. They are first-class entrepreneurs who share our platform vision and, like us, have launched a wide range of products—from digital payments to food delivery—to serve consumers.

I expect many of you will ask how we arrived at this structure, meaning allowing Careem to maintain an independent brand and operate separately. After careful consideration, we decided that this framework has the advantage of letting us build new products and try new ideas across not one, but two, strong brands, with strong operators within each. Over time, by integrating parts of our networks, we can operate more efficiently, achieve even lower wait times, expand new products like high-capacity vehicles and payments, and quicken the already remarkable pace of innovation in the region.

This acquisition is subject to regulatory approval in various countries, which we don’t expect before Q1 2020. Until then, nothing changes. And since both companies will continue to largely operate separately after the acquisition, very little will change in either teams’ day-to-day operations post-close. Today’s news is a testament to the incredible business our team has worked so hard to build.

It’s a great day for the Middle East, for the region’s thriving tech sector, for Careem, and for Uber.

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