Is Tunisia falling apart? Here’s what’s going on

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Tunisia now has no prime minister and is facing its worst crisis since it kicked off the Arab Spring. Here’s a look at the turmoil rocking this Mediterranean country of 10 million that many still think has the best chance of becoming a true democracy in the Arab world.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on Tuesday carried out his promise to resign, after his offer to solve the country’s political bickering with an apolitical government of technocrats was rejected by his own Islamist Ennahda Party. That exposed deep divisions not just among the country’s many political parties but within the ruling coalition as well.

On Feb. 6, Chokri Belaid, a leftist Tunisian opposition politician and sharp critic of the government, was assassinated by four shots through his car window early in the morning outside his home. Those killers have yet to be caught, but people immediately suspected the government and days of unrest and rioting convulsed the country afterwards.

Belaid’s death did not kick off the crisis, however. It was only the culmination of a long-brewing stalemate between the ruling coalition and the opposition against a backdrop of dashed popular expectations, rising prices, crushing unemployment and an economy that is not getting back on its feet.

After a year of governing by the “troika,” an alliance of Ennahda and two secular parties, there was a wide consensus that many ministers were incompetent and the urgent problems that had sparked the revolution were not being solved.

The problem was that after weeks of talks, the government and the opposition couldn’t agree on government reshuffle amid accusations that Ennahda was increasingly resorting to goon squads to intimidate its rivals.

Now, three weeks after Belaid’s assassination and with Jebali’s resignation, the political class seems no closer to a solution.

Tunisia is certainly not the biggest, richest or most influential Arab nation. It does, however, have one of the best educated populations and lacks the wide gaps between rich and poor found in places like Morocco and Egypt.

While a dictator, Tunisia’s first post-independence leader Habib Bourguiba invested heavily in education, producing a literate population that is predominantly middle class and is widely considered to have one of the most promising profiles for becoming a prosperous democracy.

If Tunisia, whose articulate youth overthrew their long-ruling President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and inspired a region-wide pro-democracy movement, can make the transition to democracy, it would serve as a powerful inspiration to Egypt, Libya and other countries struggling with their own aftermaths to the Arab Spring.

After nine month of various interim governments, in October 2011 Tunisia held its first free and fair elections to form a constitutional assembly to run the country and write a new constitution. The big winner was the long-oppressed Ennahda Party, which took 41 percent of the seats.

Rather than trying to rule alone, like Egypt’s Islamists, Tunisia’s Ennahda allied with two secular parties amid high hopes. Instead, one year on, the coalition has been wracked by internal squabbles with several high-profile resignations and has made little headway against the nation’s economic problems.

New elections are set to be held this year and many in Ennahda fear that in the country’s straitened circumstances, they may lose their commanding bloc of seats in any new legislature.

Arrayed against the ruling coalition has been a disparate collection of parties ranging from hard-core Marxists to right-of-center parties that have little in common aside from their dislike of Ennahda.

In summer 2012, a new opposition party known as Nida Tunis or Tunisia Calls, was formed by the former interim Prime Minister Beiji Caid Essebsi that harkened back to the era of Bourguiba and promised stability and growth. It seemed to have much more traction than the rest of the opposition, and was immediately branded by Ennahda as holdovers from the old regime.

As Ennahda’s popularity has flagged, the opposition has become emboldened and is predicting an Islamist failure in upcoming elections.

Just hours before Jebali handed in his resignation, the Standard & Poor’s international ratings agency downgraded the government’s credit rating for the third time since the revolution, specifically citing how the political instability was preventing an economic recovery.

It’s not an isolated opinion. Chedli Ayari, the country’s central bank governor, warned weeks earlier that the lack of political consensus was kneecapping a nascent economic recovery.

Ultimately a resurgent economy will be the key to social stability in a country that sees severe flare-ups of violence every few months - sometimes for political reasons, but always fueled by unemployed youth whose expectations were raised by the revolution. Some known as Salafis have turned to extremist Islam, and attacked people and institutions they have deemed impious, including the U.S. embassy on Sept. 14.

Jebali, whose star has risen in the country following his principled resignation, has left the way open to returning as prime minister - but only if his own party is ready to make compromises.

In the two years since the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia’s political class has repeatedly brought the country back from the brink and engaged in last-minute compromises, a flexibility lacking among its neighbors. The latest crisis will be the biggest test of that skill to date.

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