Economy Sucks, Tunisian Islamists Give Up Power?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/10/2014 09:35:00 AM
Yippee Arab Spring! Tunisia, another economic basket case for the IMF
This may be the ultimate application of Bill Clinton's principle of "it's the economy, stupid." It's no big secret that Tunisia is in dire economic straits. In the hands of the Islamist Ennahda party after the so-called Arab Spring, its economic plight has only worsened. At the moment, Tunisia is trying to convince IMF powers-that-be that its next tranche should be doled out soon as the natives become increasingly restless:
Tunisia's government, under pressure from protests over public spending cuts, said on Wednesday it had done enough to persuade the IMF to approve a $500 million loan tranche at meetings later this month. Strikes started in the southern and central towns of Kasserine, Thala and Gafsa on Tuesday and spilled over to the capital Tunis on Wednesday, after calls from transport and agricultural unions to protest over a vehicle tax hike. Riot police fired tear gas in some southern towns.
Ho hum, another post-Arab Spring economic failure; what else is new? Alike Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice Party [sic], Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda has won every post-Arab Spring election. However, many Western commentators have been puzzled by its apparent willingness to give up power when (unelected) secularists confronted it--unlike its Egyptian counterpart. Why give in so easily when you have an "electoral mandate" in white people-speak?

The answer, perhaps, is that in the interests of self-preservation as the Tunisian economic is going to the dogs [arf-arf], Ennahda is willing to relinquish power as the IMF inevitably asks for more painful reforms. So here's how things may be happening in this version of events: The Islamists call for early elections, and then implicitly ask their supporters to refrain from voting for them. So, the secularists win and implement IMF austerity measures, causing widespread discontent. Eventually, unpopular IMF conditionalities undermine the popularity of secularists and make Tunisian voters welcome Ennahda again in the absence any real alternatives:
Another key factor behind Ennahda's decision to hand power to a transitional technocrat government, the journalist argued, is the rise in social tensions linked to Tunisia's ongoing economic malaise, which the Islamists want to distance themselves from before the next elections. Protests and strikes have multiplied, with unemployed youths demanding work, particularly in the country's impoverished interior, amid the prospect of unpopular taxes to fill the state's empty coffers.
"There are pitfalls everywhere. Ennahda's strategy of moderation also comes from a lack of alternatives. They know that the next government will have no magic wand, that they will still have the same problems, and they won't be able to say: 'You see, that wasn't our fault,'" Sellami said...
But government plans to meet IMF and the World Bank requirements are already threatening the fragile stability of the North African country. With the budget deficit expected to jump to 6.8 percent of gross domestic product for 2013, Tunisia's 2014 budget includes measure to raise one vehicle tax by 25 percent and to add another tax on big cars.
There are too many "what ifs" to say whether this ploy will work (or even if they will attempt it in the first place). That said--and their economic ham-fistedness aside--Ennahda is displaying more long-term political savvy than its more dogmatic Egyptian equivalent did. It may even start a trend of democratically elected governments giving up power voluntarily to ensure that the other guy takes the blame for the country going down the tubes absent any real chops in public economic management. 

As it so happens, the latter description fits Ennahda to a T.