Five months after polls swept an Islamist-led coalition to power in post-revolution Tunisia, the country’s kaleidoscopic opposition is striving to unite and fight for a secular state.
The myriad opposition parties in Tunisia’s constituent assembly are merging into bigger blocs, hoping to mount a stiffer challenge to the dominant Islamist party Ennahda.
The secular movement may also have found a natural leader with former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi, the politician who steered last year’s transitional period and is staging a comeback at age 85.
Ennahda and its governing partners, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, snapped up most of the votes in the October 23 election that capped dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster nine months earlier.
The other parties were left to lick their wounds but a leftist and a centrist bloc are emerging, while a third current that includes former members of Ben Ali’s ruling party is also uniting behind the legacy of Habib Bourguiba, the father of Tunisia’s independence.
“We’re sliding towards a theocratic regime, so now the opposition wants to regroup to balance two main forces: the Islamists who wants to implement Sharia and the liberals who defend a democratic, modern and secular state,” political analyst Mounir Charfi told AFP.
“The Islamists – with Ennahda, Hizb Ettahrir (a non-registered party advocating the return of the caliphate) and the Salafist movement – are already a well-structured and disciplined force. A parallel force therefore needs to be created,” he said.
Several leftist and liberal groups have already announced they were planning to merge, such as the Ettajdid (Renewal) movement, the Labour Party and the Democratic Modernist Pole.
Another merger is in the works to bring together the Progressive Democratic Party, the center-right liberal party Afek Tounes and the Republic Party.
A coalition of 11 small political parties created in the aftermath of last year’s January 14 revolution also called for uniting all “Destourians”, a word that stems from the Arabic for constitution.
Those parties claim to embody the legacy of Bourguiba’s Destourian Socialist Party and include several former members of its successor, Ben Ali’s now dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally.
“These parties’ failure at the constituent assembly polls, the disappearance of some of them and the rise to power of an Ennahda-dominated government... have led to this streamlining,” Ahmed Manai, another analyst, said.
He said the fledgling government’s “average performance” so far in a country riddled with unemployment was another factor encouraging the opposition to structure.
He argued the most significant force to emerge from a revamped opposition camp could be a group led by Beji Caid Essebsi because “it transcends ideological divisions.”
“It still lacks soul and leadership, but by federating a constellation of Destourian parties it could become an effective electoral platform,” Manai said.
He argued Essebsi was one of the few who could raise enough funds to compete with Ennahda, a party that enjoys the support, at least political, of countries such as Qatar and Turkey.
Essebsi had launched an appeal in January for groups to unite around secular values and offer Tunisians an alternative to the Islamists.
On Saturday, the veteran politician is organizing a conference in Monastir – Bourguiba’s hometown – that is expected to bring 52 political groups together and could be a defining moment for Tunisia’s opposition.