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A political deal in a deeply divided Tunisia

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TUNIS, Tunisia » Compromise has been in short supply since Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring more than two years ago. But this small North African nation has once again broken new ground with a political deal between longtime enemies among the Islamists and the secular old guard.

The deal, announced over the weekend, aims to put in place an independent caretaker government until new elections next year, marking the first time Islamists have agreed in the face of rising public anger to step back from power gained at the ballot box.

Tunisia had been careening toward chaos and political paralysis after two assassinations this year and an inability to finalize a new constitution, and it remains fragile and divided. But months of laborious back-room haggling led by two political leaders helped, at least for now, to avoid the kind of zero-sum politics that have come to define the post-Arab Spring tumult in Egypt, Libya and the battlefield of Syria.

Former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, 86, who leads a new secular-minded political party, Nidaa Tounes, and Rachid Ghannouchi, 76, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, have starkly different visions of the country’s future. But since Tunisia’s political crisis flared this year, the two men have met one-on-one at least five or six times to hammer out an agreement to find a political solution.

It has not been easy, for either side, and in an indication of just how deep the divisions remain, the two could still not agree on a candidate to serve as interim prime minister. When the deal was announced late Saturday, between Ennahda and about half of the liberal parties in the opposition, Mehdi Jomaa, 50, the industry minister, was tapped as interim prime minister. But Essebsi did not sign on and could conceivably block Cabinet picks.

Still, Ennahda was motivated to find a deal that would allow it to move forward with the framework the two men worked out. Looking over its shoulder at the fall of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, and the crackdown on members of his Muslim Brotherhood that followed, the party was fearful of suffering the same fate.

Yet it also refused to be hustled from power, insisting that it complete its mandate to draft a new constitution and electoral law, and that the change of power occur through elections.

There began five months of demonstrations and political mudslinging, as the economy worsened and terrorist violence increased. "This tense political situation is conducive to terrorism," Ghannouchi, a renowned religious scholar, said in an interview before the deal.

It was in this heated atmosphere that Essebsi threw down the gauntlet and in a television interview and called on Ghannouchi to meet him and talk. "I said: ‘You are responsible for that" — meaning the crisis that had beset the country — "you have to be part of the solution, I invite you to do so.’"

Doing so was not an easy thing to do, and it may yet cost each man politically. Their history is long, tangled and contentious. Essebsi is now saying that the selection of Jomaa is an effort by Ennahda to retain influence.

Ghannouchi was imprisoned twice while Essebsi served as foreign minister during the dictatorship, forcing him into 22 years in exile in England. Educated at Zeituna University in Tunisia, and universities in Cairo and Damascus, Ghannouchi founded the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981. He returned to Tunisia only after the fall of the dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011.

Essebsi, on the other hand, represents the old political class. Born in 1926 into a prominent family, he trained as a lawyer when Tunisia was a French colony, and served as interior, defense and foreign minister after Tunisian independence in 1956. He also held posts as ambassador to France and Germany, and was a parliamentary deputy.

But he left public service in 1994, during the dictatorship, and was considered sufficiently untainted to run the transitional administration for a year after the 2011 uprising.

It was Essebsi’s even hand as transitional prime minister, overseeing Tunisia’s first democratic multiparty elections, that allowed the Islamists under Ennahda to sweep to power in October 2011.

Yet within 18 months, Essebsi began railing against what he saw as Ennahda’s incompetence at governing and its laxity toward the incipient terrorism inside Tunisia. He then formed his party, Nidaa Tounes, which has quickly won the support of a broad section of the traditional political elite, including former government members.

Though poles apart, the two men came together after two political assassinations and mounting Islamic terrorism threatened to roll back Tunisia’s tentative democratic progress.

The first assassination — of a leading liberal politician, Chokri Belaid, in February — ended the political honeymoon for Ennahda. Many who had voted for the party, already disappointed with its inability to govern, now saw its alleged softness toward Islamist extremist groups as giving license to the violence.

Then, with the second assassination, of the Popular Front leader, Mohammed Brahmi, on July 25, the anger against the Islamists swelled into political crisis. Opposition parties demonstrated for months outside the Parliament building, calling for the government’s resignation; politicians withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly, forcing its suspension.

"There was a social rejection of Ennahda," said Alaya Allani, a professor of modern history at Manouba University in Tunisia. "There was a rejection of the Islamist agenda."

After Essebsi’s initial invitation to a dialogue, it took Ghannouchi 10 or 12 days to respond, but finally he telephoned and agreed to meet. When Essebsi told him he had engagements outside the country, Ghannouchi followed him to Paris.

"He had the courage to say, ‘I will come and see you abroad,’" Essebsi recalled in an interview. "He was well received of course. We talked for three hours, and I think we created a new climate."

Ghannouchi is more circumspect about the importance of his meetings with Essebsi. His comment after the first meeting was that Essebsi was set on becoming president. Labor union leaders, who have mediated rounds of cross-party talks since, have been equally important in plotting a way forward, Ghannouchi said.

Yet the image of the two doyens of Tunisian politics sitting together dramatically eased the tension in the country.

Essebsi won some immediate concessions. Ghannouchi agreed to drop the age limit of 75 for holders of political office in the constitution, which cleared the way for Essebsi to run for president. Ennahda also withdrew a draft law to prevent former members of the Ben Ali government from holding office, a concession that angered many inside the party who feared a return of the old guard that suppressed the Islamists.

Essebsi maintains that he threw the Islamists a lifeline by persuading them to relinquish power in favor of an independent caretaker government backed by all parties. The step, he insists, ensured that the Islamists will have a permanent place in Tunisian politics and prevented them from being outlawed, as the Muslim Brotherhood has been in Egypt.

"I consider that Ennahda is a reality on the political scene," Essebsi said in an interview at his party headquarters, newly adorned with the Nidaa Tounes emblem of a red palm tree. "I reproach it for dominating everything, but I also recognize that it exists, and if we are to hold new elections it will certainly have a result in those elections. So if I am a democrat, I have to work with that."

"It is not the opinion of all, but it is my opinion," he added.

Essebsi was criticized by members of the opposition who fundamentally mistrust the Islamist vision for a religious state. Others explained it as a tactic, to let Ennahda save face.

Essebsi he says he found support among those who feared civil strife in Tunisia. "People appreciated that, people who put the interests of Tunisia above the interests of their party," he said.

Ghannouchi also met resistance within his own party. Some warned of an impending coup. The party’s general council eventually came around to backing the national dialogue, yet concerns remain.

"I am afraid that they will not let us back into power," said Osama al Saghir, a deputy and member of Ennahda’s ruling council.

On a national level, the talks have been popular. "There is a climate of calm because people want this scenario of political leaders sitting round a table and not of people out on the streets," Ghannouchi said.

Despite what he perceives as waning international support for the democratic experiment in the Arab world, he remains optimistic.

"We still believe that Tunisia will succeed in establishing the first democratic model that brings together Islam and modernity in the region," he said. "This small country can provide this large benefit to the world."

Under the agreed road map, the National Constituent Assembly members should now return to work and pass the constitution, appoint an election commission and pass the electoral law within the next month, while Jomaa selects his Cabinet. The new government would then take over and lead the country through preparations for elections, which are expected to take six to eight months.

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