By Ramzy Baroud

When the news circulated that Morocco’s leading political group, the Development and Justice Party (PJD), had been trounced in the latest election, held in September, official media mouthpieces in Egypt celebrated the news as if the PJD’s defeat was, in itself, a blow to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Regionally, political commentators who dedicated much of their time to discredit various Islamic political parties – often on behalf of one Arab government or another – found in the news another supposed proof that political Islam was a failure in both theory and practice.


 

‘Regionally, the news of the (PJD) failure was greeted with jubilation,’ Magdi Abdelhadi wrote on the BBC English website. ‘Commentators regarded the fall of PJD as the final nail in the coffin of political Islam,’ he added. 

Missing from such sweeping declarations is that those who greeted the defeat of the PJD with ‘jubilation’ are mostly the very crowd that dismissed political Islam even during its unprecedented surge following the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011; and the same intellectual mercenaries who unashamedly continue to sing the praises of such dictators as General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and the various Arab monarchs in the Gulf. 

The PJD was not only defeated but almost completely demolished as a result of the vote, managing to retain only twelve of the 125 seats it had won in the 2016 election. The reasons behind such failure, however, are being misconstrued by various entities, governments and individuals with the aim of settling old scores and tarnishing political rivals. The ultimate objective here seems to be to cement the status quo where the fate of Arab nations remains in the grip of brutal, corrupt and self-aggrandising rulers who do not tolerate genuine political plurality and democracy.

For those who insist on viewing Arab and Middle Eastern politics through generalised, academic notions, the outcome of the Moroccan election has provided a perfect opportunity to delve further into sweeping statements. These knee-jerk, cliched reactions were boosted by the ongoing political crisis in Tunisia, the main victim of which, aside from Tunisian democracy, is the Ennahda Islamist party.

Democracy crisis in Tunisia

On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied began a series of measures that effectively dismantled the country’s entire democratic infrastructure, while concentrating all power in his hands.

Taking advantage of the poor performances and endemic dysfunction of the country’s major political parties, including Ennahda, as well as the festering economic crisis and the growing dissatisfaction among ordinary Tunisians, Saied justified his actions as a way ‘to save the state and society’.

An academic with no real political experience, Saied provided no roadmap to restore the country’s democracy or to fix its many socio-economic ailments. Instead, on 29 September, he appointed another inexperienced politician, also an academic, Najla Bouden Romdhane, to form a government. Saied’s choice of selecting a woman for the post – making her the first Arab woman prime minister – was probably designed to communicate a message of progressive politics, and to win himself more time. But to what end? 

In reviewing Saied’s political programme since July, The Economist argued that the Tunisian president had ‘announced little in the way of an economic program, apart from inchoate plans to fight corruption and use the proceeds to fund development’. Saied’s strategy for lowering inflation is ‘to ask businesses to offer discounts’, according to the London-based publication, hardly the radical reordering of a country’s devastated economy. 

Frustrated by the failure to translate Tunisia’s budding democracy into a tangible difference that can be experienced in the everyday life of ordinary, unemployed and impoverished people, Tunisia’s public opinion has shifted gradually over the years. This small nation, which in 2011 had sought salvation through democracy, now links democracy with economic prosperity. According to a public opinion poll conducted by Arab Barometer in July 2021, three-quarters of Tunisians define democracy in terms of economic outcomes. Since the desired outcomes were not delivered under a succession of governments that ruled the country over the past decade, 87 per cent of Tunisians supported their president’s decision to sack the parliament. They may have hoped that Saied’s measures would reverse the devastating economic crisis. However, as it is becoming clear that Saied has no clear plan to steer Tunisia away from the tragic path of Lebanon and other failed economies, protesters are taking to the streets again, demanding a restoration of democracy and a return to plurality.

Deterministic vs Dynamic politics 

When the uprisings began in Tunisia late 2010 and spread across the region, it seemed that the fall of dictators and the rise of democracy was inevitable; also certain seemed the rise of Islamic parties, which had registered substantial victories in various democratic elections throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – which was founded by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood – won 37 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary election in 2011; Morocco’s PJD secured over 25 per cent of available seats in the parliament; and Ennahda obtained 89 of 217 seats.

At the time, it was common to discuss Islamic parties as if they were all branches of the same ideological movement. In fact, in the view of some, even the same political movement. ‘Political Islam’ became synonymous with the ‘Arab Spring’. Some saw this as an opportunity for ‘moderate’ Muslims – marginalised, exiled and often tortured and killed – finally to claim what was rightfully theirs; others, namely Israeli and right-wing western intellectuals and politicians, decried what they saw as an ‘Islamic Winter’, claiming that democracy and Islam would espouse an even greater anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiment. 

Often missing from most of these discussions was the national context under which all Arab politics, whether Islamic-leaning or otherwise, operate. In Morocco, for example, King Mohammed VI played his own political game to ensure the survival of the monarchy in the age of democratisation. He quickly drew the Islamists nearer to him, offered a veneer of democracy, while practically holding on to all aspects of power.

Though it will take time to reach a conclusive analysis, it is possible that the PJD’s downfall was a result of its willingness to compromise on its declared principles in exchange for a very limited share of power. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the Islamic party, elected to steer the country away from the rule of a single individual, was serving the role of the King’s official political party. This was manifested in the PJD’s acceptance and eventual endorsement of Morocco’s normalisation of ties with the State of Israel in December 2020. 

The Islamists’ recent defeat in Morocco, however, must not be viewed as a crisis in political Islam, for the latter is a theoretical concept that is in constant flux and is open to various, often radically opposing, interpretations by different scholars and under different historical contexts. While the PJD, for example, signed off on the King’s normalisation with Israel, Ennahda vehemently rejected it. Indeed, each Islamic party seems to behave according to different sets of priorities that are unique to that party, to its socio-economic setting, national context, political objectives and, ultimately, to its own unique interests. 

Causes for optimism 

Instead of resorting to abstract notions and generalisations, such as ‘the fall of PJD (being) the final nail in the coffin of political Islam’, an alternative, and more sensible reading is possible. First, most Arab voters, like voters everywhere, judge politicians based on performance, not hype, slogans and chants. This is as true for Islamic parties as it is for socialists, secularists and all others; and it is as applicable to the Middle East as it to the rest of the world. 

Second, Morocco is a unique political space that must be analysed separately from Tunisia, and the latter from Egypt, or Palestine, and so on. While it is academically sound to speak of political phenomena, generalisations cannot be easily applied to everyday political outcomes. 

Third, the fact that the PJD is quietly retreating to the ranks of the opposition and that Ennahda is experiencing a substantial overhaul, is an indication that Islamic parties have, not only in theory but also in practice, accepted some of the main pillars of democracy and constructive plurality: democratic alternation, self-introspection and soul-searching.

Those who have comforted themselves with the misapprehension that political Islam is dead are reminiscent, in their self-deception, of Francis Fukuyama’s theory on the ‘end of history’ after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the temporarily-uncontested rise of the US as the world’s only superpower. Such provisional thinking is not only irrational, but is itself an outcome of ideologically-motivated wishful thinking. In the end, history remained in motion, as it always will.

While the Justice and Development Party, Ennahda and other Islamic parties have much reflection to do, it must be remembered that the future is not shaped by deterministic notions, but by dynamic processes that constantly produce new variables and, thus, new results. This is as true in North Africa as it has been proven to be in the rest of the world. 

* Dr Ramzy Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre. He is also the editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books, the latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.

By Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh

Introduction: A Turbulent Transition

For the third time in six months, Tunisia’s political elites are scrambling to form a new government. This latest saga of political wheeling and dealing came after Elyes El-Fakhfakh’s abrupt resignation earlier this month amidst his conflict of interest (read: corruption) scandal over profiting from government contracts with companies he owns, to the tune of fifteen million dollars, and the appointment of his replacement, Hichem Mechichi, by President Kais Saied. This insight focuses on a series of interrelated and interconnected crises afflicting Tunisia over the past several months, since the September-October 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

It is time to go beyond sensationalist coverage and ideological or politicised ‘analysis’ of Tunisia’s dizzying political scene, in the hope that the country’s political elite can get on with the business of governing. To that end, the article considers not just the political implications for the latest developments in the country, but also ponders some of the lessons to be learned at this critical stage in the country’s democratic transition.

Two observations are in order. First, Tunisia may not be ‘exceptional’, but its democratisation deserves contextualised attention. The idiosyncrasy of Tunisia’s transition is its ever-shifting centres of power between the various political actors and even institutions. Parties within and outside of the ruling coalition, as well as individuals, always seem to be looking for an improved sort of power balance to strengthen themselves vis-à-vis other players, even within the same ruling coalition. This constant competitiveness, long after election season ended, likely spurred the revelations of Fafkhfakh’s earnings now under investigation, precipitating his resignation.

Changing coalitions, changes within parties, unsteady dynamics and tugs-of-war between the ‘three presidents’ (President Saied; the now-former head of government, Fakhfakh; and Speaker of Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi) have become an expected feature of Tunisian politics. No consensus seems to exist on anything at the partisan level. The electorate has accepted the country’s basic institutions, but this is not always echoed by politicians and parties. Examples include Saied’s campaigning to change the political system in favour of more direct democracy;  the electoral law that is lopsided regarding how seats are counted, making it advantageous to newcomers like Itilaf al-Karama and detrimental to larger parties like Ennahda; parliamentary by-laws (including speaking time, committees, and the option to debate and vote on ‘petitions’);  and foreign policy (on Libya, Syria, or other regional powers such as Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and Egypt). Continuing instability has yielded few set expectations that pattern the behaviour of either voters or political elites. The political scene has neither found nor fully constructed itself. Tunisian politics, nearly ten years after the 2011 uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has not yet settled from its institutions to its political culture.

Stemming from this instability, a second related feature is the absence of dominance or hegemony by any political actor, party or individual. Even the largest party, Ennahda, has seen its parliamentary seats plummet from sixty nine to fifty four in the last elections. The question ‘Who governs in Tunisia today?’ is pertinent. Is it the head of government, the speaker of parliament or the president? To an extent, this fragmentation will continue to be part of the landscape in the foreseeable future. Overall, this is a healthy dynamic in Tunisia’s democratisation, making a repeat of the 2013 Egypt coup scenario unlikely. 

 

The ‘conflict of interest’/corruption scandal

The extremely rapid rise and fall of a candidate who received less than 0.5 per cent of Tunisians’ votes when he ran for the presidency in October 2019 has made headlines in and outside Tunisia. His insistent confidence, as pressure mounted by MPs and the media (for instance, his interview with Nawaat), was baffling. Fakhfakh insisted that the judicial process would play out in his favour. Investigations and new reports by the finance ministry and the committee tasked with looking into the conflict of interest allegations were not kind to this short-lived prime minister. The conditions of contracts awarded to companies in which he has at least partial ownership (including Valis) were far from being above board, the reports suggest.  Paradoxically, Fakhfakh had promised to lead a government of ‘clarity’ (al-wuduh) and to regain public trust ('adat al-thiqah). These pledges have fallen flat and it will be little wonder if even more voters (particularly young people) sink deeper into political apathy and disillusionment.

The choice of this allegedly corrupt politician to lead government reveals that Saied misfired terribly when he nominated Fakhfakh as the ‘most competent’ person for the position (al-shakhsiyyah al-aqdar) as outlined by Article 89 of the constitution. This was after Ennahda’s nominee, Habib Jemli, failed to deliver a government acceptable to a majority in the legislature. There is irony in a newcomer president, about whom there is general agreement on his ‘clean’ record, choosing a prime minister knee-deep in corruption allegations. The question now is whether Saied’s new appointment, former interior minister Hichem Mechichi, will be able to form a new government? Or will the country head to new elections in three months?

Parliamentary mayhem

The exploding Fakhfakh scandal came amidst a chaotic parliamentary term. The tireless campaign of the head of the Free Destourian Party, Abir Moussi, against Rached Ghannouchi appears to be bearing fruit. Moussi claims to have secured at least the seventy-three signatures needed for debate and a vote of no confidence in the parliamentary speaker. This situation seemed unlikely a few months ago when she first brought up the idea after a meeting between Ghannouchi and Turkey’s Erdogan, and urged action by Tunisians committed to a ‘civil’ Tunisian state and national security.

Moussi and her party did not secure these gains in a vacuum. They have been boosted by the constant disruptions, name-calling, and time-wasting by an almost anarchic parliament. The sessions debating two petitions in early June – on Libya and an interrogation of Ghannouchi, and on demanding a French apology for colonialism – are cases in point. MPs and their party/coalition blocs appear to have no time for actual deliberation and lawmaking on matters of substantive importance, such as deepening poverty, increasing marginalisation, unmet demands of the El Kamour social movement, and the alarming foreign debt in a Tunisia recovering from the coronavirus. 

Parliamentary disruption reached its apex on 16 July as a Free Destourian Party’s sit-in prevented the long-awaited session on voting for nominees for the constitutional court, forcing the session to be moved to a different hall on Monday, 21 July. The antics in parliament may make for dramatic and viral video clips, but the distasteful political altercations, now extending to trading accusations of violence between Ennahda and the Free Destourian Party, are unseemly performances by elected officials. Unpleasant verbal exchanges between Etilaf al-Karamah and Moussi’s party, Moussi’s monologues against Ennahdah, whom she calls ‘Ikhwaniyyah’, as well as Sa'id al-Jaziri’s railing against everyone and everything including his fellow MPs whom he has called ni’aj (sheep), do not contribute to resolving any of Tunisia’s deep challenges. It is probably safe to say that parliament does not inspire the confidence of the voting public. One hopes that voters who still are paying attention will remember that electability does not always translate into skills in debate, persuasion, dialogue, and the kinds of policymaking that the country needs.

Decaying, moving parties

Tunisia’s new parties exhibit constant change internally as well as toward each other. Alliances even within the ruling coalition (Ennahda, Al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati, Harakat al-Sha’b, Tahya Tounes, and independents) survived for barely a few months. Ennahda has been, among other things, accused of playing both sides – opposition and government – as it secured votes by the opposition (Etilaf al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes) in Parliament. (The rejoinder is that the government coalition is not reflected in relations within Parliament.) The ruling coalition turned out to be highly problematic. It became Ennahdah vs the rest, it seems, with severe attacks in the media, by Harakat al-Sha'b (Salim Labyad) and al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati (al-'Ajbuni and Samia 'Abbo) against the Islamists with whom they were coalition partners. 

Ennahda was indiscreet, announcing days before Fakhfakh’s resignation that it was entering talks with the president about forming a new government. The party was rebuffed by Saied, who claimed publicly, and in the presence of Fakhfakh, that he refused to be ‘blackmailed’, and that he was neither part of nor committed to decisions made ‘behind closed doors’. Fakhfakh promptly dismissed Ennahda’s ministers before resigning. This final move was telling, pointing to a lack of political coexistence and congeniality between parties and individuals in the five-month-old governing coalition.

Meanwhile, discord within Ennahda continues with it being hit by a number of high-level resignations, most notably that of Abdelhamid Jlassi in March. Dissenting voices against Ghannouchi, and debate about whether or not he will seek to change the party’s by-laws to renew his leadership, may pause until a new government is formed. Yet all eyes are on Ennahda and its impending eleventh congress. Another coalition member, Qalb Tounes, suffers from internal problems, including resignations and losing MPs in its parliamentary delegation, which has shrunk from thirty-eight to twenty-seven. Yet, Nabil Karoui’s party may be making a comeback. (Another irony is that Karoui himself was imprisoned during the presidential campaign on corruption allegations.) Will it ally with Ennahda and Etilaf al-Karamah? That seems possible, but nothing is certain.

The rightist Etilaf al-Karamah makes headlines, but its MPs seem amateurish. Party leaders Makhlouf and Alawi prioritise showy speeches over substantive debate. They may be counterpoints to Moussi, doing their fair share of playing into regional politics. Etilaf al-Karamah has thus not been inconsequential in this year’s political events, but its performance is far from validating the revolutionary discourse of its campaign and its slogans such as halat wa’i (state of enhanced consciousness).

Informal politics: responding to socioeconomic challenges

Outside the country’s formal institutions, the biggest story has been the ongoing Kamour protests. Most recently, it has disrupted gas production after mediation failed. Protests also rocked Ramada in the governorate of Tataouine, after the killing of a young man by security forces. The Kamour protesters are adamant that the 2017 agreement with Youssef Chahed’s government, promising jobs and a regional development fund, be honoured. In addition, they insist that the government travel southward to Tataouine and insist ‘al-tafawud fi al-Kamour wa laysa fi al-kusoor (negotiations in Kamour, not in castles)The state’s security reflex in Ramada and the rest of Tataouine is, of course, worrying almost ten years into the country’s democratic transition.

Tataouine’s protests exemplify Tunisia’s huge challenges. The country faces not just the political task of forming a new government, but also a contracting economy hit by the coronavirus. A newly reopened tourism sector may do little to offset the budget deficit or create jobs for the unemployed. If Fakhfakh accomplished anything during his brief tenure, it was burying the country deeper in foreign debt, perhaps over a billion dollars just in the months since the epidemic began. There appear to be no economic fixes (quick or otherwise) on the horizon, as the ‘multiple marginalization’ of regional (under)development, despite being a commonly articulated concern on the lips of politicians, is a huge problem that grows more urgent by the day. Political unruliness (protests, sit-ins, etc.) in Kamour are not likely to suddenly disappear.

Lessons for democratisation

The dramatic turn of events in Tunisia reminds one that corruption is deeply entrenched in the country. A pertinent question is: ‘How did it come to pass that Fakhfakh was approved by parliament to head the government?’ Furthermore, why was he not vetted more thoroughly? The silver lining of this entire scandal may be that he did not get further into his premiership and make millions more dollars than most Tunisians would only dream of earning in their lifetime. A transitional justice process was cut short when the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate ended eighteen months ago. That, along with the economic Reconciliation Law (qanun al-musalahah) of 2018 is quite worrying. Fakhfakh may have been a newcomer to corruption, but there are countless other businesspeople profiting from suspicious deals, including from the Ben Ali era. Moreover, Fakhfakhgate demonstrates how corruption can undermine the entire political process. Consequently, regional development cannot be ignored. Mitigating Tunisia’s inequalities is one side of the oin of political institution-building. Economic development for the country’s marginalised population is a necessary and urgent undertaking.

Among the country’s political elites, MPs and politicians might all benefit from a lesson or two in civility. They would do well to brush up on discourse ethics (how to conduct respectful dialogue), and the parliamentary decorum expected of those elected into office. Disagreement is expected, even encouraged, in a democracy, but the level of personal attacks has reached an unprecedented low. Even basic parliamentary procedure appears to be too much to ask of this batch of MPs. Interruptions, yelling, and a lack of respect for physical space are all violations of the parliament’s by-laws, which appear meaningless as the speaker of parliament or his two deputy speakers (Samira al-Chaouachi and Tariq al-Fatiti) are unable to control their colleagues’ antics. Parliamentary etiquette is a prerequisite for substantive deliberation and lawmaking; it is not mere ornamentation, as indicated by the meagre accomplishments of this parliament.

She may divide people, but Abir Moussi is a fast-rising political force in the country. Her imprint is on much of what happens in Tunisian politics today, inflecting political discourse from foreign policy (vis-à-vis Libya or Turkey) to Islamism (in her campaign against Ennahda and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood), to development (where she is head of the Committee on Industry and Trade in parliament), to parliamentary procedure (it was she who activated the ‘war of the petitions’.) Referred to by many as the neo-Tajamu’ leader, she may never get the presidency, but she has a clear future ahead of her.

Improving inter-party dynamics is an important challenge for Tunisian democratic learning. Parties and coalitions may gain a great deal from an extraparliamentary platform for dialogue in an attempt to map out common ground and mutual acceptance, and some level of professional, collegial tolerance and coexistence. Tunisia’s parties seem not to debate head-to-head, but indirectly, via the media, press conferences, statements and facebook posts. Direct encounters and interactions would be beneficial to all, would enrich political life generally, and may go some way towards blunting some of the discord and fracturing, affecting the goings-on in and between the offices of the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

Ennahdah, the country’s largest party, needs serious reflection and to focus on regaining voters and reconnecting with its base. If it has learned anything from the last nine months, Nahdaouis should, by now, be keenly aware that without the numbers, they cannot accomplish much. The backsliding in vote share and parliamentary seats should be a problem that they place centre stage, strategising on how to woo back their voters. These internal reviews should be as big a concern at Ennahdah’s next congress as the fateful decision about the party’s leadership.

Saied seemed to have drawn out the electorate (particularly youth), but mounting disinterest in voting and formal politics suggest he has not lived up to the hype. The president appears aloof, and fumbling when he does decide to express clear views on contentious political issues. He could play a more constructive role in the midst of all the disharmony, especially since he is supposedly party-neutral. The instability of the past few months has laid bare the challenges of governing in this pilloried system. Endless wrangling between the three most important political offices and a parliament where no party has a clear majority have resulted in deadlock. Perhaps the drafters of the constitution did not anticipate this. Politicians, parties and voters now know that, in Tunisia, pluralism can bring it political fragmentation. It is up to the creativity and civic-mindedness of all political actors vested in the democratic transition to ensure that fragmentation does not obstruct the smooth functioning of the country’s political institutions. Democracy, after all, is meant to solve real problems for real people.

 

Looking forward: political paralysis and democratisation

The current mayhem confirms that perfect procedural execution does not mean that democratisation unfolds. If there is something to be said about the North African country, it is that, procedurally, everything is going according to plan. The hold-up is not in the democratic machinery, processes, institutions, and procedures which are, on the whole, operating as they should (even if the Constitutional Court nomination process being held up again by the Free Destourian Party’s sit-in). Rather, the problem is in the stock of values that seem not to have matured: moderation, inclusiveness, dialogue, compromise, tolerance, and so forth. Further, we see very serious remnants of ideological divides that rise to the level of personal animosities (for example, between Ennahda members and Moussi). Politicians have not been able to transcend the polarisation that interferes in the business of government.

Tunisia’s political parties are fragile and have no permanence in constituency, policy or leadership. Far from settled, they all display symptoms of attrition and decay. All are receding, losing the public to varying degrees. Ennahda is beleaguered by huge problems and seems to be in denial, and the Islamist (or ‘Muslim Democrat’, as it has described itself since 2016) party is sorely in need of renewal. It has not successfully engaged with its ideological foes, and currently engages with the always controversial Etilaf Al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes. This unease with other political players has become a huge predicament. Ennahda has not been able to politically penetrate anything: any ideology, the constituencies of other parties, the leaderships of other parties. This failure does not mean that there are no leaders or interlocutors within the party who might be able to reach out and communicate with other political actors, but this is the exception, not the rule.

As for party leader Rached Ghannouchi, he has done all he can. There is not much more he can offer to Tunisian politics, nor can he climb up any other political ladder. He will neither become president nor prime minister of the country. He did well in steering his party into routinising its role in Tunisian politics, has been successful in normalising his party as a major player in the political scene, and in contributing to building democratic institutions since 2011 (including the 2014 constitution). He has earned himself a place in the annals of the country’s political history. Highlighting the fact that he has outlived his political career is his very contentious role at the head of parliament. One the one hand, it is convenient for other parties to blame Ennahda when everyone shares responsibility in the widely remarked-upon chaos in parliament. Yet, it may not be false that parliament is dysfunctional partly because people do not want to work with Ghannouchi. For whatever reason, people across the political spectrum have problems with him. Moreover, at this level of performance he is not doing well either, having proved over the past five months his inability to be a suitable moderator of parliamentary sessions or debates. Having such a lightning-rod figure leading parliament in such a fragmented political landscape does not facilitate a stumbling democratic transition. It may be best for Tunisia’s democratisation, and even for Ennahda, if Ghannouchi resigns as speaker.

The other parties have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’; they share the perception that there is a constant threat from Ennahda, which is mobilised to dominate the entire political system and the state itself. This position of almost intimidation is reflected in expressions of concern that Ennahda is ‘taking over’ various institutions and processes in the country. The hubbub over the office of the parliamentary speaker is one example. 

Kaiss Saied exaggerates when he ominously warns that the Tunisian state is under threat. What is clear is that Tunisia’s politicians, parties, and their respective political institutions have not risen to the occasion of the country’s pressing socioeconomic needs.  It is fair to say that the deprivation, marginalisation, and socioeconomic exclusion that gave birth to the revolution in late 2010 have not been adequately addressed, let alone resolved. Democracy is a medium that facilitates delivering the goods: the sharing and organising of power and resources and the putting in place of processes that facilitate the arrival, execution and implementation of laws and constitutional rights, such as clean water, employment, regional development, access to decent healthcare and education, among others. This has not happened. 

The incessant commotion in parliament has created endless digressions, diverting from the business of governing. This parliament has passed only nineteen pieces of legislation in its first session, compared to forty-three in the 2014 to 2019 parliament. In the wake of Covid-19, Tunisia is confronting increasing debt, exclusion, rising unemployment, and an economy that is stalled, according to all indicators. Politicians should take their electoral mandate more seriously, living up to whatever lowered expectations Tunisians have of their democratically-elected representatives and their nascent political institutions.

The uncertainty that comes with democracy may be the price to pay for institutionalised freedom, equality, rule of law, etc. Democracy remains preferable to any other political system. The Tunisian experiment has demonstrated that democracy may bring to power people who are not necessarily qualified to govern, particularly in times of repeated or continual crises. The ‘three presidencies’ has proven to be a drawback to effective governance: Tunisia has a very inexperienced head of state, with no vision, experience or history of struggle; an octogenarian head of parliament who courts controversy and even rejection; and a head of the executive branch (who has just left) mired in corruption allegations. 

A kind of chaos continues in the search for Tunisia’s next government. All eyes are on the Arab world’s first democratising country, to see what surprises await.

* Larbi Sadiki is a full professor of Arab Democratization, Qatar University, and Layla Saleh is an associate professor of International Relations, Qatar University

By Larbi Sadiki 

Since 2017, Tunisia’s interior and south have witnessed a wave of ongoing protests, characterised by the slogan ‘al-rakh la’, meaning ‘No Relenting’. These protests have tested the resilience of the country’s democracy. Though they intermittently disrupt phosphate and oil production, they do so against the disruption of lives in towns like Gafsa, Kasserine or Tataouine, where democracy is yet to end marginalisation.

As the Tunisian government celebrated its ‘victory’ over the spread of COVID-19 on 25 June, protestors in Tataouine, at the southern tip of the country, sounded a different note. The jubilation over the release of the Kamour Hirak detainees did not prevent the activists from getting back to the business of protesting. The Kamour Hirak is a three-year-old protest in Tunisia’s southern Tataouine province, focused around grievances related to jobs in the oil and gas fields in the area, and on the share of funds from the hydrocarbon industry to be earmarked for local development. The activists in this loose group of protesters, who mostly rely on employment in the southern region’s oilfields, are demanding jobs and investments as part of a regional development fund that had been promised to them under a 2017 agreement with Youcef Chahed’s government.

Sustained protest

The Kamour protests did not erupt in a vacuum; they must be situated within the context of more than fifteen years of revolutionary action in the phosphate basin. The causes are still the same as they were late 2010 and 2011 when the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted. Multiple marginalisation is still the common incubator of the protests.

The protests are reminders of several interconnected issues. First, policy inertia when it comes to youth unemployment and regional marginalisation is a festering problem crying for urgent attention. Second, they sound an alarm about southern youth being disaffected and disenchanted with Tunisia’s new rulers. Third, they have created a protest multiplier effect, eliciting a widespread sense of solidarity and unity with the marginalised people of the south and centre. Last, the state’s coercive apparatus’s reaction to these protests shows that old habits die hard: when politics fails, there is an escalation of violent police tactics.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of protests in Tataouine as the working class ups the ante. Tansiqiyyat al-Kamour is a newer movement that mirrors persistent unrest in Gafsa’s phosphate basin, but protests and sit-ins have disrupted Tunisian phosphate production for years, recently resulting in production being 27.5 per cent lower than the 2.7 million ton goal set by the Gafsa Phosphate Company.

Before the 2011 revolution, protestors faced the challenge of dealing with the authoritarian state under Ben Ali. Arrests and state security repression included violence that resulted in at least four deaths in the famous phosphate basin events of 2008. Now, the same protesters are wrangling with a new democratic state that includes a stumbling transitional justice process for previous state crackdowns. Importantly, the demands of Gafsa’s marginalised people have not changed much since before the 2011 uprising.

Democracy is not enough

These clusters of unruliness across the country’s south represent movements of moral protest. Activists insist on a minimum standard of dignity to complement the hard-won freedoms of the 2011 uprising, and, when it is lacking, protests erupt periodically in the long-marginalised south of the country, with its long history of state neglect since formal independence in 1956. Tunisia’s politicians may rightly declare that COVID-19 exposed deep social inequality in the country, but economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering deprivation in the south. One government after another seems incapable of finding solutions to poverty, unemployment, poor healthcare infrastructure (highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis), and lethal environmental damage in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine (with Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the 2010-11 uprising), among other interior and southern regions.

Kamour’s latest escalation is but one manifestation of long-simmering discontent, accompanied by feelings of discrimination in broad segments of the country. For the people in these areas, the richer Sahel (coast), including the capital and surrounding areas, is a world away. The democratic ‘pill’ may have quelled some of the indignation in Tunisia’s marginal areas since 2011, but protests have not faded from the scene since Ben Ali’s fall.

The state’s heavy-handed approach to sit-ins and protests, such as the confiscation of 13 tents in Tataouine last week, did not go down well; indeed, it resulted in many citizens feeling unseen and unheard. ‘These events were painful,’ said Khalifah Bohoush, a member of Tansiqiyyat Al-Kamour. He complained that the government had violated protestors’ dignity. ‘We felt insulted…[after] we had chanted thawrah (revolution) in one voice with all Tunisians!’ Like Bohoush, many feel that the canisters of tear gas, the broken arms and legs, and the curses and insults hurled by security officials signal that not all Tunisian citizens are equal, that the country’s north is more deserving of wealth and government attention than the south’s forgotten and restless youth.

Democratisation has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families, all of whom wait to realise the distributive responsibilities of the state, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kamour youth continually stress their constitutional right to protest. Upon his release, Kamour spokesperson Tarek al Haddad admonished the country’s politicians that Ben Ali’s days were over: after 2011, there is no rule by force, he said. Why, then, the vicious crackdown, the teargas, the violence, the foul language?

These latest clashes between protestors and security ­­officials remind us that the ballot is not enough. Especially for a poor country beleaguered by deep inequalities, voting people into parliament and presidents into office is not an end in itself; elected officials should represent constituents’ demands. In this case, these demands include the implementation of a three-year-old agreement guaranteeing 1 500 jobs in oil companies (for instance, in the new Nawara plant), 500 landscape/agricultural jobs, and TND 80 million (about $28 400 000) a year for a regional development fund in Tataouine.

Democratic ethos and practice furnish the framework for constant dialogue between state and society, voters and officials. Reverting to the old Ben Ali-era tactics that made the Interior Ministry notorious in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world does not square well with democratisation. At this democratic moment, Tunisia finds itself doubly besieged. Internally, the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh faces the challenge of the ‘hirak’ and the youth stubbornly hanging onto government pledges to deliver the goods. A cabinet meeting late last week discussed the original pledge, inching closer to meeting the Kamour protesters’ demands for jobs. The embattled prime minister is also busy with a burgeoning ‘conflict of interest’ scandal. Externally, Tunisia is deeper in debt than ever before; a perfunctory calculation of debt accumulated during the past few months of the COVID-19 crisis tallies up to more than a USD 1 billion.

Who will pay back these loans, and where is the COVID-19 assistance going? Ultimately, democracy creates openings for solving people’s problems, particularly when opportunities arise. The epidemic was one such opportunity, the latest protests in the interior and the south are another. If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalised (and border) regions, any awe of democracy that still exists may fade. These youth publicly insist on the peacefulness, legality, and the justness of their demands and their tactics. The government should not lose them as interlocutors for confronting the country’s problems. Before Fakhfakh, the Chahed government lost credibility by failing to satisfactorily fulfil its Kamour promises. 

The current government seems to follow a policy of delay and decay: deferring distributive justice and sinking in political paralysis. The new president, Kais Saeid, seemed to have acted proactively by meeting with the Kamour protesters. However, not much has materialised since that encounter. And it was followed by a stain on his reputation when, on a recent tour France, he secured Tunisia’s latest loan instalment of $350 million and asserted in an interview on France24 that Tunisia had been a protectorate, rather than a colony, of France. Tunisia had not been not colonised the way that Algeria had, he insisted. In one interview, Saeid erased and rewrote Tunisian history and the numerous struggles and sacrifices against French colonialism.

Whether or not ‘protectorate’ is a precise legal designation is beside the point. Language always implies power. It is tactless and jarring that a sitting Tunisian president would reproduce the linguistic understandings of colonial discourse, which underpin decades of physical and cultural violence. Saeid revealed not only his lack of sophistication, but also an aloofness from Tunisian society. He demonstrated a willingness, for whatever reason, to verbally violate elements of the basis of a multi-vocal Tunisian identity whose very postcoloniality was forged in sacrifices of life and limb, for the sake of freedom.

Perhaps the president should reread Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. He would do well to re-immerse himself in the voices of local resisters and Tunisian voices such as Abdelaziz Al-Tha’albi, Farhat Hashad, Habib Bourguiba, to name but a few, who struggled, wrote, organised, and fought against colonialism. However, even more damaging to Saeid’s reputation has been his foot-dragging in making good on his promise to the Kamour youth who he met in January.

A distracted parliament

Tunisia has recently experienced parliamentary mayhem, epitomised in June’s ‘battle of the petitions’ that included one petition on 9 June that was sponsored by the Dignity Coalition, which demanded an apology from France for its colonial crimes. The debacle illustrated the lack of an ethos of respectful dialogue among MPs from rival parties (even within the government’s teetering ruling coalition). Instead, citizens witness cheap showmanship and sensationalism, ideological polarisation, and a willingness to turn parliament into a new televised battleground for region-wide conflicts.

Parliamentary deliberation has ceded to ‘petitioning’ by constantly bickering political parties and coalitions. The bickering has become more ideological and historical than contemporary or for Tunisia’s benefit. We see parliamentarian seek to issue final judgements on history (on, for example, Bourguiba’s legacy), or to position themselves vis-à-vis regional discord (regarding, for instance, pro- or anti-Turkey sentiments with respect to the conflict in Libya). This has intensified polarisation. Such raucousness in the legislature has distracted and detracted from real social and economic woes felt in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and other interior and southern regions.

Civil society actors, from Tataouine and Kasserine’s protesting youth to an Arab-wide initiative calling for the cancellation of exploitative international loans, may be ahead of politicians in demanding solutions for worsening socio-economic predicaments. Yet it remains up to those who hold power in Tunisia, the controllers of its purse strings, to activate the country’s impressive democratic toolkit. The government should ramp up the budgets of regions with special needs: unemployment, poverty, crumbling public amenities, etc. These are problems that will not go away.

Enacting policies that inch towards responsiveness to urgent citizen demands and away from external dependency is a Herculean but inescapable task, if not out of a sense of moral obligation, then at least because the disruptions of protests will not simply disappear. Kamour’s youth chant it in protests and scrawl it on walls: ‘Al rakh la’ – resist, and stay the course. Democracy demands they be taken seriously.

Thinking ahead: researching protests

From an epistemological angle, Tunisian and other Arab protests force us to revisit their common puzzle and research trajectories via a positivist take (when and how are protests inevitable?), and a normative angle (when, how and why should elected politicians represent the marginalised and the protesters?). In Tunisia, the biggest gain of the 2011 uprising is freedom. Freedom, however, begets more freedom, reinforcing different actors’ quests for dignity. It knows no limits in reimagining polity and democratic citizenship of equal (distributive, not adversarial) opportunity.

What do Tunisia’s protests share with contemporaneous moral protests and riots? In a nutshell, even if in some form or other they are conditioned by local concerns related to specific sociopolitical realities, they seem to share patterns of misrule and injustice. Arab protests from Beirut or Tripoli in Lebanon to Suweida in Syria, from Gafsa to Morocco’s Rif, keep millions of youth hanging on to possibilities of justice, democracy and better lives: ‘Al rakh la!’

Larbi Sadiki is a Tunisian writer, political scientist and Professor at the Qatar University. He was formerly a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Sadiki's writing focuses on the democratization of the Arab world as well as human rights studies and dialogue between the Western and Islamic civilizations.

** This article was first published in openDemocracy (8 July 2020)

By Larbi Sadiki

On 13 October, the election of retired constitutional law professor, Kais Saied, as Tunisia’s new president triggered a wide array of reactions and energised hopes for a promising Arab democracy. During his campaign as a low-profile candidate with no established political affiliation, he asserted, ‘I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life.’ Some analysts paid close attention to the inverse relationship between, on the one hand, the presumed ‘effectiveness’ of political institutions and parties and, on the other, citizen participation. Saied’s victory implies several ironies in a country that was the cradle of the 2011 MENA uprisings and from where four civil society organisations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

Saied’s status as a new political rock star in both Tunisian and Arab contexts has nurtured optimism for the second wave of Arab democratisation in the new millennium. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his young supporters ‘for turning a new page’ and vowed to try to build a ‘new Tunisia.’ According to the Sigma polling institute, about 90 per cent of voters between 18-25 years-old voted for Saied, compared with 49.2 per cent of voters over the age of 60.[1]Nearly nine years after the 2011 uprising, the revolutionary ethos appears alive and well in Tunisia. Voters issued a strong rejoinder to establishment politicians and parties, reminding observers and the political elite alike that freedom, dignity and social justice remain unfulfilled aims. The 2019 presidential race was marred by accusations of corruption, incarceration of a front-runner candidate, the return of some ancien regime figures and expectations of voter apathy. 

In this article, I examine the unfolding of Tunisia’s democratic transition with special reference to the 2019 presidential – and, to a lesser extent, parliamentary – elections. I begin with an overview of the crowded presidential field, which narrowed in the second round to a contest between newcomers, Nabil Karoui and Saied. Proceeding to a critical assessment of the salient features of this election season, I then examine the predicament of Ennahda. Finally, I look ahead to the political and economic challenges facing Saied, a newcomer with no political experience, no political party to serve as the legislative counterpart to his agenda and an enthusiastic youth cohort that has re-entered formal politics with a relish.

This significance of the 2019 election goes beyond Huntington’s measure of consolidated democracy where two peaceful transfers of power occur,[2]a measure that Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, seems to have accepted in celebrating these elections as Tunisia’s democratic ‘graduation.’ More important, perhaps, is the remarkable smoothness of the early elections, brought on by the death of the former president Beji Caid Essebsi. The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), the national elections commission headed by Nabil Bafoon, deserves much of the credit for the quality of the elections. ISIE re-scheduled both the presidential and parliamentary polls and even delayed the presidential runoff to ensure that Karoui would be released from prison before it took place on 13 October – another first for the Arab world. Arab commentators have been effusive in their admiration of Tunisia’s presidential-parliamentary-presidential election trilogy over the past few weeks, not least for its outcome that seems to have revived the revolutionary ethos and a faith in change-inducing democracy itself.[3]The moment of excitement may, however, be short-lived. Soon, the realities of governance will set in: a fragmented parliament that requires cobbling together some sort of coalition, possible legal challenges from Karoui’s team and the daunting economic challenges that spurred this ‘protest vote’ in the first place. Yet, Tunisians have impressed once again.

The race begins in a crowded field

A brief comparative look is in order. Voter turnout was higher than expected at 55 per cent, but lower than the 60.1 per cent turnout of the second round of the 2014 presidential elections. Saied’s vote share of 72.71 per cent, compared to Karoui’s 27.3 per cent, is as close to a ‘landslide’ result as possible. His majority surpassed Essebsi’s 55.68 per cent vote share five years earlier, when Moncef Marzouki’s garnered 44.32 per cent of the votes in 2014.

In a fragmented field of twenty-six, but later trimmed to twenty-four, candidates, the 2019 presidential race attracted the influence of money and the attendant drama. Football mogul Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain, was dogged by questions over the source of his wealth and he dropped out of the race on the eve of the first round. From the outset, the wealthy Karoui proved serious competition for both Youssef Chahed, the incumbent prime minister since 2016, and even Ennahda, thanks to his charity work with the marginalised in the country’s interior regions. Karoui, whose candidacy would have been denied under the modified election law that Esebssi failed to sign before his death, was in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering from 23 August until two days before the runoff on 13 October.

In a democratising political system where judicial independence is yet to be entrenched, Chahed sounded disingenuous in his insistence that Karoui’s arrest, which was duly condemned by fellow candidates, was not politically motivated. During the parliamentary campaign and into the second round of the presidential race, all candidates except Chahed called for Karoui’s release, seeking a more even-handed race. Repeating the claim that he was ‘not in a race against anybody,’ Saied put his money where his mouth was and, in solidarity with Karoui, suspended campaigning during the last week.

Abir Moussi performed poorly in the first round of the presidential race, securing less than 5 per cent of the vote. Yet, as leader of the Free Dustour party, she made a dent on the election scene. Moussi considers ‘revolution’ a misnomer for the transformation set in motion in 2011 and unabashedly hearkens back to the days of ousted dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Moussi’s well-worn habit of attacking Islamists – referring to Ennahda only as ‘al-Ikhwan’ – as a putative threat to democracy and the Tunisian way of life was not her only campaign issue. She adopted the language of development and responsiveness to citizens’ needs as indicative of the failures by ruling parties, elites and the larger post-2011 ‘rotten’ politics. Her affiliations to Ben Ali and anti-revolution stances may have deterred most Tunisians, but not all; her party won seventeen parliamentary seats. Moussi is sure to be a dogged naysayer, a persistent challenger to whatever coalition is hammered out.

Another political newcomer to the presidential race was Saifeddine Makhlouf, spokesperson for Etilak al-Karamah (Dignity Coalition), representing former post-2011 parties, such as Justice and Development and al-Mu'tamar (Congress), and independents, including bloggers and academics. Despite his seeming overconfidence, Makhlouf failed to advance to the runoff. An attorney, he was something of a lightning-rod figure, deemed ultra-conservative by even Tunisian Islamists. He ran on a platform of representing the ‘thawrah damir’ (revolution consciousness) of the country to reclaim Tunisian dignity from the creeping security tentacles of the state and reclaim Tunisian sovereignty from interference by outsiders. Perhaps too argumentative for a presidential personality in an increasingly fragmented country, Makhlouf demanded an official apology from France for colonialism and continuing postcolonial exploitation in natural resource contracts and visa requirements into France or the EU. Despite his failed presidential bid, he remains an important figure on the political scene, as Etilaf al-Karamah nabbed twenty-one seats in the parliamentary election.

As the post-2011 Minster of Defence and former Minister of Health under Ben Ali, Abdelkarim Zbidi might have been closest to the West’s preferred candidate for leadership in Tunisia. He would have stood between the Islamists and key ministries, overseeing the intelligence and security portfolios in consultation with Western military and political elites. Yet Zbidi did not go far, emerging fourth with less than 10 per cent of the vote.

Chahed, running on a ‘pragmatic’ anti-corruption platform and paying lip service to the untapped potential of the country’s largely-unemployed and restive youth, insisted that he would renegotiate Tunisia’s agreements with the EU. He also promised to give up his French citizenship, per the constitutional requirement for presidential contenders, surprising many Tunisians who were unaware of his dual citizenship. Nevertheless, over the past three years, he has administered Tunisia’s US$2.9 billion loan from the IMF, with austerity strings attached. His unpopular policies sparked recurring protests in the capital as well as the country’s west and south. Construction workers and doctors were the latest groups to threaten strike action. Chahed’s record did not inspire confidence among voters that he would reverse Tunisia’s descent into economic dependency or limit profiteering by foreign corporations at the expense of local economic gains. His constant spouting of numbers – hundreds of thousands of families receiving aid from the state and a GDP growth rate inching towards 3 per cent – did not mask the unemployment rate of over 15 per cent (more than double the rate in some governorates and among youth), skyrocketing prices and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent.

While Chahed failed miserably in his presidential bid, his Tahya Tounes party surprised many by winning a substantial fifteen parliamentary seats. Whether or not Chahed joins the Ennahda-led coalition remains to be seen, but his ambition does not appear to have been dampened. Chahed even had the gall to comment on Saied’s win as proof that Tunisians are sick of ‘corruption,’ his own campaign issue that landed Karoui in jail. Chahed does not seem to recognise that he was the head of the very government that Tunisians voted against.

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Candidates under the spotlight

The Tunisian media’s role in voter education and providing dispassionate and ‘neutral’ information left much to be desired. The media has undoubtedly benefitted from privatisation and decreased concentration of ownership and proliferation,[4]but the notion of ‘authoritarian resilience’[5]is not far-fetched when considering the congruence, or lack thereof, between media development and democratic transition. Major television networks – including Nessma TV, belonging to billionaire and presidential contender Karoui; Hannibal TV, formerly owned by businessman Larbi Nasra, an independent presidential candidate; and especially Zaytouna TV – tended to side with the Islamist Ennahda Party. The polarising role of media continued in the 2019 elections, in both presidential and parliamentary elections, with candidates planning their appearances accordingly. Nessma TV’s media ‘voice’ was unsurprisingly partisan. It maintained clear solidarity with its owner, Karoui, after his arrest, including frequent appearances by his wife, Salwa Smaoui.

However, in line with directives by the High National Independent Authority on Audio-Visual Communication, television and radio stations alike offered equal media time to presidential candidates through the 2019 election season. This included not just television stations such as Al-Tasi'ah and Al-Tunissia, but also radio stations such as MozaiqueFM, ShamsFM and others, which took turns hosting the different candidates and extended invitations to Karoui’s campaign when the Nessma owner was in jail. The country’s youth, however, swiftly mobilised to decry instances of one-sided television coverage. For example, when Al-Hiwar al Tounsi aired fierce attacks on Saied, it prompted a social media campaign where one million people un-subscribed from the channel’s Facebook page.[6]

The media highlight has been the presidential debates,[7]when millions of Tunisians tuned in. During the first round, the debates were broadcast three nights in a row (7-9 September) to provide an opportunity to all twenty-six candidates.[8]Questions to candidates addressed security, national defence, foreign policy, as well as a range of other ‘public issues,’ from gender equality to economic woes facing citizens. The series of televised debates, a first for the Arab world, provided a welcome opportunity for voters and other Arab observers to view up-close the respective personas of the presidential hopefuls. This ‘test’ of candidates’ improvisational skills, including the ability to construct pithy responses in ninety seconds, was a chance for them to declare their stances on various political issues, including some controversial topics, such as relations with Syria or the EU and inheritance laws.

Other issues and positions, such as ‘economic diplomacy’ and the imperatives of regional development, revealed more commonalities than differences between the candidates. The hosting duos for each debate – a man and a woman from the public and private media sectors – competently ensured that candidates followed the rules, stuck to the allotted time and engaged – more or less – in respectful, if not particularly incisive, dialogue. In the second debate, a case of ‘cheating’ by two candidates who brought in forbidden supplementary materials – a notebook and a phone – did not upset the equanimity and seriousness of this novel deliberative platform.

The final debate between the recently-released Karoui and Saied may or may not have been a decisive factor, assuring the latter’s landslide victory less than two days later. In the final showdown between the last two presidential hopefuls, the moderators’ questions could have been more hard-hitting, instead of recycling questions from the first round of debates. For instance, they could have asked pointedly how each of the candidates could bring Tunisians together in a highly polarised political climate with no clear winner after the parliamentary elections. It would have been the opportunity to press candidates on the gap between their ambitious pledges – Saied’s ‘empowering the people’ and Karoui’s ‘caring for the poor’ – and the narrow constitutional powers of the president. Still, the debates were a positive step toward the constructive public deliberation that complements formal institutional processes in a democracy. Democratic learning is ongoing; the performance of both moderators and candidates will likely improve with time.

The debate did, however, bring to the fore differences between the two personalities and some of their policy inclinations. It left a perhaps indelible impression of an eloquent, commanding and honest Saied sparring with a soft-spoken and relatively inarticulate Karoui. Failing to convince in his denial of hiring a public relations firm run by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer, Karoui waffled on the question of normalising relations with Israel.

 

Party fluidity

The 2019 elections sustained the continual change of the political party landscape that began five years earlier. In the 2014 elections, the bulk of the political parties or alliances that contested the 2011 National Constituent Assembly election dissolved. Unsurprisingly, in 2019, the voting public took the two largest parties, Ennahda and Nidaa, to task for their ‘consensus’ coalition. Throughout the 2019 campaigns, the two parties played the blame game for the failures of the tawaafuq (consensus government) in dealing with chronic unemployment and underdevelopment. 

Only Ennahda withstood the meltdowns of the post-2011 parties. Still, it not only failed to advance its candidate to the second round of the presidential poll, but its clout has also been largely diminished in the parliamentary elections. Nidaa Tounes has been buried with its founder Essebsi and its members have dispersed into a number of spin-off parties including Chahed’s Tahya Tounes. The remnants of the Tunisian left, including Hammami’s Popular Front, have been all but scattered to the wind. This may be a post-ideological moment, albeit dizzying in its fragmented uncertainty.

 

Political gentrification rebuffed

Moneyed elites are not unique to the Arab Middle East; they influence politics globally.[9]Like Riahi in the 2014 elections, Karoui had a finger in every pie in 2019. The presidential election was only one front, as his new Qalb Tounes party came second in the parliamentary elections, winning thirty-nine seats. The nexus of politics and wealth in party formation is a phenomenon deserving of systematic study. This ‘gentrification’ of politics in Tunisia has come under close scrutiny and critics argue it could undermine the country’s transition.[10]Public disaffection with political parties in general may explain the rise of independent candidates, whose share of the vote in the municipal elections of 2018 rose markedly.[11]The 2019 elections cemented this trend and yet, the tycoons who have run for the presidency since 2011 have not succeeded so far. Perhaps buying votes does not work. 

Karoui embraced the cheeky moniker ‘Makrona’ (pasta) during his post-defeat press conference. Defiant, he noted that his opponents’ use of the label to poke fun at him and his party left him unfazed: Qalb Tounes cared about the poor and Tunisia would be a much better place if everyone received a plate of macaroni, he insisted.[12]But voters in the second round disagreed, pointedly turned away from big money and the stench of corruption – whether for the campaign or vote buying. Instead, Tunisians opted for a candidate who spent no money campaigning, rewarding Saied with nearly three times as many votes as Karoui, who owned a television channel and spent three years working with the poor as a springboard for his presidential bid. What does that say about oligarchy and democracy?[13]Perhaps newly-democratised developing countries are not necessarily doomed to choose the Berlusconis or Trumps of this world.

 

Ennahda in crisis?

The Islamist Ennahda party can rightfully claim an instrumental role in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition. It relinquished power once the constitution was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in January 2014 and again in October 2014. The moderate Islamist party displayed a rare willingness to concede defeat, which bodes well for the future of democratic transition in Tunisia.[14]It is through the repetition of these exercises of consolidation, self-enforcing rules of competition and compliance that democracy is gradually constructed. Thereafter, five years of Ennahda’s tawafuq (consensus) agreement with former rival Nidaa, hailed by so many including Western onlookers, may have ensured some modicum of stability within government. But to what end? As it governed alongside Essebsi’s party under Chahed, Ennahda failed to rise to severe policy challenges, particularly the dire economic situation. Its convergence with – or capitulation to – Nidaa on such issues as the so-called Reconciliation Law,[15]austerity measures and tax hikes incited public dissatisfaction, protests and campaigns, such as ‘Manish Msameh’ (I am not forgiving).[16]

For the country’s most organised political party, known for its fixed support base usually estimated at about 35 per cent of the voting public, Abdelfattah Mourou’s failure to advance in the elections should come as a piercing wake-up call. The outcome forces difficult questions about voting discipline within Ennahda. The myth of a united and coherent movement-party has been shattered. Endorsing Kais Saied in the second round, Ennahda soon jumped back on the ‘revolutionary’ bandwagon as it campaigned for parliamentary seats. The party’s fifty-two seats in parliament, down from sixty-nine in 2014, only confirmed Tunisians’ sinking faith in Ennahda. While it has the biggest share of seats, Ennahda is nowhere close to forming a government.

The party’s leadership should take this electoral beating as an opportunity for deep soul-searching. After Mourou’s loss, Ennahda’s founding duo should have seized the moment to hold themselves accountable to the party’s members, its base and all of Tunisia. They did not. Instead, Ghannouchi sought to make up for years of empty ‘consensus politics’ by invoking regional inequality, economic development and the unemployment crisis in two weeks of parliamentary campaigning. But the Tunisian public appears to have recognised the difference between delayed rhetoric and actual policy-making, punishing Ennahda and the rest of the political establishment at the polls. Ennahda, like Nidaa and the other post-revolutionary parties that preceded it, was saved from being completely buried by its relatively stable support base over the last eight years. This support base is now a much-diminished political force. This phenomenon is both fragmentary and, concomitantly, a pluralising dynamic. Nonetheless, for the Islamists, much reflection is in order.

Tunisia since the fall of Ban Ali

What has Ennahda offered to Tunisians since helping to hammer out the constitution of the second republic, their crowning achievement, five years ago? When Ennahda joined hands with Essebsi and came up with its ‘consensus’ innovation, did the party downsize itself? Is Ennahda’s entire project a failure, sunk by the Tunisian electorate? Or, alternatively, were the tactical and strategic mistakes in a poorly administered ‘consensus’ due to two men and not their parties?[17]Many predicted that this election season would allow Ghannouchi to make a graceful exit from politics, especially after Mourou failed to advance to the second round of the presidential. Handing over the party’s leadership to the younger generation is long overdue.

Yet the Shaykh appears to have ignored dissenting voices within Ennahda and, more broadly, the larger Tunisian population. The possibility of Ghannouchi as Prime Minister – if one goes by the rumour mill – seems to be a dubious political arrangement when Ennahda is in the throes of an existential crisis. For five years it was neither a majority nor opposition party and since 2016, it has distanced itself from political Islam. Eight years after the revolution, who and what is Ennahda? The next five years will be full of trial and error. With no formal political experience, Ghannouchi’s rumoured venture into the premiership will be deleterious not only to the country, but also to his own political legacy-in-the-making.

Reuters (2019). Women soldiers stand guard outside a polling station during a second round runoff of the Tunisian presidential election. 13 October. Tunis.

The puzzle of Kais Saied 

The result of 2019 presidential election has raised the youth’s hopes of reclaiming a margin of existence and a space for rekindling the memes of the 2011 revolution, namely, ‘the people want.’ All eyes are now focused on how the youth’s chosen saviour, ‘KS,’ will translate this slogan into freedom, dignity and, above all else, jobs. The country’s youth have made an about-turn from their political apathy documented in the years since the revolution.[18]Young people have proven that they not only protest and work in civil society, but they also vote. Exit polls estimate that 90 per cent of eligible 18-35 year-olds and 83.3 per cent of 26-44 year-olds cast their vote for Saied.[19]For many youth, the choice was between decency, integrity, honesty (Saied) and corruption (Karoui). Saied inspired youth voluntarism, as well as formal political participation, getting the revolution back on track, by some accounts.[20]

However, question remains as to how Saied’s victory is going to mark a ‘turning point’ when economic management does not constitutionally come under the purview of the president’s duties. Despite this election’s hype and the victory of a ‘clean’ and non-establishment figure, how will a president constitutionally restricted to matters of foreign affairs and security address his voters’ domestic and economic concerns? Saied’s task is further complicated by the future influence of the amorphous non-partisan youth movement (hirak) that aided his success in the runoff vote. The youth hirak rebelled not only against Ennahda, whose ‘defectors’ supported Saied, but also against the entire political establishment that has run the country since the National Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011. There is an element of a general protest movement against parties and leaders, who the voting public deem to have strayed from the principles of the uprisings. This public backlash not only explains the dramatic results during the 2019 elections, but the disintegration of entire establishment organisations – including from within the left, the biggest loser in these elections – in favour of unknown parties and candidates who could claim affinity with Tunisia’s ‘indignants.’

How has an unconventional populist,[21]who makes up for his lack of political identity or anti-authoritarian struggle with fervent grassroots backing,[22]won the presidential race? Saied defied conventional wisdom and focused on lingering problems that were ignored over the last eight years by inexperienced and power-hungry political forces and leaders. Saied’s candidacy was an outlet for people to vent their political disillusionment. His 72 per cent share of the vote is not an accurate political barometer. Instead, the first round results where Saied was allotted 18.4 per cent of the vote and Karoui 15.58 per cent, with Ennahda’s Mourou coming in third, offer a more accurate snapshot, as confirmed by the parliamentary elections where no party even approached a majority. Tunisia’s political mosaic is far from monism. Thus, Saied’s overwhelming majority should not be flagged as a test of his popularity. At judgement day, Tunisians handed down a sentence to the post-Ben Ali establishment, including Islamists. He was democratically elected as the polity finds itself at a kind of nadir. How someone without a party and without a political base finds himself in high office is a political puzzle that will be unfurling over the next five years.

Most striking about Saied is his ‘contre-pouvoir’, his anti-system sensibility. Saied was at his most fiery in the presidential debates discussing his attitude toward Israel, railing against the ‘high treason’ of dealing with the Zionist state – not Jews as such – that had ‘displaced [the] entire [Palestinian] people…many of whom remain in tents today.’[23]In this exchange he was also at his most populist, sounding more ideological than presidential in proclaiming that war was the ‘normal’ state of affairs with Israel. It is one thing for celebrating crowds to shout ‘the people want a free Palestine!’, but the formal discourse of a presidential candidate should sound more sophisticated. Saied could have offered a more credible position through a juridical take on the ‘deal of century’ by stressing, for instance, a prioritisation of Palestinian interests in line with international law and UN Security Council Resolutions. While he purports to be the upholder and respecter-in-chief of sovereignty, his political lexicon remains wanting, a deficiency that some political experience and reflexivity may remedy.

Populist discourse invoking ‘general will’ is, however, anachronistic at best. Whose popular will? Over two hundred years of democratic theory and practice across the world has problematised a single, spontaneous iradah 'ammah. Why attempt to overhaul the country’s constitution that Tunisians deliberated on for four years, in pursuit of a new political system approximating direct democracy (‘from the local to the regional to the centre’), complete with recall mechanisms? The constitution itself sanctions and potentially empowers local and regional governance; the problem has not been simply a lack of implementation and political will, but also a dearth of public funds. Informal actors – activists, politically unaffiliated youth, unions, etc. – must be included in policy planning, especially in the realm of development. 

Tunisia since the fall of Ban Ali

Saied correctly argues that political – not just economic – marginalisation of youth is a glaring deficiency in a country whose political establishment has veered off the revolutionary track. Yet his promise to ‘empower the people,’ especially the youth, to ‘rise to the level of decision-making’ to implement their own will smacks of digression from real issues. He has offered very few concrete solutions to reviving the ailing economy. Talk of a greater ‘social role’ for the state, echoing the spirit of the 1960s. may sound appealing, but that was nearly six decades ago, before Habib Bourguiba’s turn to liberalisation, before the IMF was breathing down Tunisia’s neck demanding greater austerity and fiscal discipline, before unemployment reached over 30 per cent in some regions and before the return of harqa (illegal boat migration) as a dystopian dream for hopeless youth. While Tunisian elites struggle to solve unrelenting problems, the solution already exists in the country’s political repertoire, identified by Bourguiba himself: al-tanmiyah al-jihawiayyah (regional development). There is no need to reinvent the wheel, merely to offer leadership on creative yet feasible solutions.

 

Looking ahead

The political challenges and economic woes facing Saied are daunting,[24]but fragmentation need not be a death-sentence; it can be productive. Sustainable democratisation feeds on pluralism and it is far preferable to party hegemony. Diversified governance means more partners, more ideas and dispersed responsibility and power. If Ennahda loses more seats in the next parliamentary election, that may bode well for Tunisia’s sustainable democratisation. Tunisia’s consistent electoral contests have been turned into tests of democratic consolidation and learning processes. Through these processes, the Maghrebi country is progressively building civic capital and its young people are engaged in democratic learning. As a resource-poor country, Tunisia can capitalise on its fledgling democracy[25]to become an Arab leader in developing holistic policies that promote sustainable democracy in line with both global and regional standards.[26]Its incipient entry into the international ‘democratic club’ is a golden opportunity to cultivate diplomatic, economic and even cultural relations with other democratic countries. Such confidence and capacity building will allow Tunisia to shine in international organisations, including but not limited to its temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2020, to become a highly respected global citizen amongst the community of nations.

Thorny foreign policy issues face the incoming president. How will Saied’s populism face real-world problems, such as the country’s bases being used for US military operations with little to no information-sharing with the Tunisian government, let alone oversight?[27]Will Tunisia, a defender of international sovereignty, continue counter-terrorism cooperation with the US while these operations are kept secret for its undoubted unpopularity among the public?[28]Importantly, it remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s democratisation will translate into inclusive economic growth and regional development. For sustainable democratisation to be converted into a resource, the newly elected leaders must prioritise policies and programmes geared towards the welfare of all citizens.

After making good on his promise to visit Algeria, Saied should also travel to neighbouring Morocco. Islamists, including Ennahda, have often flocked to Paris and Washington on official visits. For inspiration, Saied can break this mould and make trips to fellow small states, including Singapore, which has an impressive record in developing a knowledge economy,[29]and Costa Rica,which has enjoyed more than six decades of democracy, despite its relative poverty.[30]Like Tunisia, these countries are resource-poor but rich in human capital and have become success stories in refashioning their politics to provide for their people.

Improving the welfare of citizens may be the solution for increasing economic productivity, which is badly needed for enhancing well-being, eradicating marginalisation, alleviating poverty and creating jobs.[31]If the new leadership fail to capitalise on this opportunity, it would render sustainable democratisation a form of ‘resource curse’ for Tunisia: a country endowed with expanding civic capital and democratic learning, but unable to make effective use of its democratic resources. 

Over the last eight years, elected governments and parliaments in Tunisia have laboured under the duress of corruption, low rates of economic growth, a devalued Dinar, polarisation, high unemployment and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent, including a dependence on international lenders.[32]Democracy may not reverse corruption fully, but it furnishes the legal means of combatting it. It may not be a panacea for all ills, but it builds the civic and democratic capital needed for unleashing initiatives consistent with improved social and distributive justice, regional development and a wider scope for economic growth.

Conclusion: Democratic learning in challenging times

In 2019, as in 2014, the main democratic breakthrough has been the consolidation of free elections as the foundation for a constitutional, orderly, non-violent, periodic and rule-based alternation of power. The practice, regardless of who emerged victorious in the landmark election, is key to democratic learning.[33]Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes set the scene for a process of electoral ‘habituation’ for minor political parties’ alliances and their followers. The skills required to generate information, partisan propaganda, campaigning, media management and connecting with the public are all newly-acquired and were on full display during the 2014 and 2019 elections. That Tunisian political parties and elites, both new and old, play by the rules of the democratic game is a strong indication of a level of ‘civic’ maturity allowing for electoral rules to be enforceable. Across a wide body of democratic theory, compliance with electoral rules and results is integral to the understanding of democracy and democratisation.[34]In 2019, voting has become routinised political practice, even if only among 55 per cent of eligible voters. The revolution has struck back, but through the ballot box.

* Larbi Sadiki teaches international affairs at Qatar University. He is author of Rethinking Arab Democratizationand editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring.His forthcoming book is The Routledge Handbook of Middle East Politics: Interdisciplinary Inscriptions.

* This article was first published by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies

 

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  8. Shorouk News(2019). ‘Presidential debates in Tunisia: Real democracy or just a rhetorical platform?’,9 September. https://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=09092019&id=fccb5a8c-2e6f-4873-8c8a-2bb3ebc6c6b4 
  9. Nylen, William (2003). Participatory Democracy versus Elitist Democracy: Lessons from Brazil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  10. Kirkpatrick, David D (2011). ‘Financing questions shadow Tunisian vote, first of Arab Spring’, New York Times, 22 October. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/world/africa/tunisia-election-faces-financing-questions.html
  11. Amara, Tarek (2018) ‘Independent candidates get most votes in Tunisia’s municipal election’, Reuters, 8 May. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-election/independent-candidates-get-most-votes-in-tunisias-municipal-election-idUSKBN1I92DW
  12. Mosaique FM(2019). Madha Qaala Nabil Karoui 'an Fawz Kais Saied?. 14 October. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmIJvwb9dUg
  13. Nazif, Ahmed (2018). ‘Tunisia is a democracy under the authority of money’, Arabi Press, 26 December. http://arabipress.net/?page=article&id=45136
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  16. Amara, Tarek (2018) ‘Violent protests resume in Tunisia after two days of calm’, Reuters, 14 January. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-protests/violent-protests-resume-in-tunisia-after-two-days-of-calm-idUSKBN1F30LC
  17. BBC NewsArabic (2019), ‘Abdelfattah Mourou Yantaqid Al-Siyasah fi Tunis Qabla al-Intikhabat al-Ri'asiyyah’, 10 October.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5Myyv3g3m4
  18. Sadiki, Larbi (2015). ‘Towards a “democratic knowledge” turn? Knowledge production in the age of the Arab Spring’,Journal of North African Studies20 (5): 702–721.
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  21. Kaddarah, Olfa (2019). Presidential elections: Why did Tunisian youth vote so strongly for Kais Saied?’,France24, 15 October. https://www.france24.com/ar/20191014-تونس-الشباب-انتخاب-قيس-سعيد-رئاسة-الثورة
  22. M Tunisia TV(2019), ‘Birnamij al-Hadath Dawr al-Shabab fi Hamlat Kais Saied wa Himayat Mashroo'ih’, 17 October. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxrzYGbjP1U
  23. Baker, Peter C (2019). ‘“We the people”: The battle to define populism’, The Guardian, 10 January. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/10/we-the-people-the-battle-to-define-populism
  24. Marzouki, M. (2004) What kind of democracy are you talking about?. Damascus: Al Dar – Al Ahlia.
  25. Watania Replay(2019). ‘Al-Munadharah al-Intikhabiyyah al-Ri'asiyyah lil Dawr al-Thani’. 12 October.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0BSQB2NkM0
  26. Yahya, Karim (2016). Resilient Democracy: An Egyptian Perspective on the Tunisian Transition. Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
  27. Al-Hanashi, Abdellatif. (2018). Al-Din wal Siyasah fi Tunis wal Fadaa' al-Magharibi: Bayna al-Irth al-Tarikhi wa Ikrahat al-Waqi. Tunis: Sotumedia.
  28. El Dahshan, Muhammad (2012). ‘Tunisia stakes a claim’, Foreign Policy, 21 May. https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/05/21/tunisia-stakes-a-claim/
  29. Jebnoun, Noureddine (2017). Tunisia’s National Intelligence: Why ‘Rogue Elephants’ Fail to Reform.Washington DC: New Academia Publishing. Pp. 64-65.
  30. Blaise, Lilia, Eric Schmitt and Carlotta Gall (2019). ‘Why the U.S. and Tunisia keep their cooperation secrete’, New York Times, 2 March. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/world/africa/us-tunisia-terrorism.html
  31. Wong, Poh-Kam, Yuen-Ping Ho and Annette Singh (2007). ‘Towards an ‘entrepreneurial university’ model to support knowledge-based economic development: The case of the National University of Singapore’, World Development35 (6): 941-958.
  32. Rodriguez-Clare, Andres (2001). ‘Costa Rica’s development strategy based on human capital and technology: How it got there, the impact of Intel and lessons for other countries’, Journal of Human Development2 (2): 311-324.
  33. Sadiki, Larbi (2019). ‘Regional development in Tunisia: The consequences of multiple marginalisation’, Policy Briefing. Doha: Brookings Doha Centre. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Regional-development-in-Tunisia-the-consequences-of-multiple-marginalization_English-Web.pdf
  34. Bouazza, Riadh (2019). ‘Tackling stubborn economic crisis a priority for Tunisia after election’, The Arab Weekly, 7 September. https://thearabweekly.com/tackling-stubborn-economic-crisis-priority-tunisia-after-election

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Larbi Sadiki

The Tunisian presidential race is heating up. With several front-runners and twenty-six candidates, the upcoming early elections on 15 September reflects a great deal of party and ‘party family’ fragmentation. This article examines the travails and challenges of the north African country’s second democratic presidential elections since the 2011 revolution. The presidential race is unfolding more as a personal political contest rather than a clash between competing political visions for a country weighed down by steep unemployment, deep socio-political marginalisation and massive foreign debt in a conflict-ridden region.

Many parties, three political currents

These elections come at a time when Tunisia’s main political parties are embroiled in political strife. From incumbent Prime Minister Youcef Chahed’s departure from Nidaa Tounes – party of the late president, Beji Caid Essebsi – and the formation of his new Tahya Tounes party, to intensifying factionalism within the Ennahda party, internal divisions have expanded the field of candidates, including several independents, in a wildly dynamic polity.

The current political scene is a far cry from the 2014 race, which was dominated by the veteran politician Essebsi, who stood head and shoulders above the other candidates from within the state machinery. Meanwhile, the fuloul, ‘remnants’ of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, were still shaken to the core by the 2011 revolution.

Over the last few weeks, the wide field of candidates have vied to win over voters from Tunisia’s main three political bases: The fulool or azlam of the former Tajammu’ and Destourians parties, made up of loyalists to Ben Ali’s regime, now claiming the legacy of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba; Islamists; and left-leaning voters.

The struggle for influence over these three voting blocs has brought to the fore contradictions that may revitalise an increasingly politically apathetic Tunisian populace. Many Tunisians had hoped that the presidential campaign would produce some degree of party consensus, narrowing the field to one candidate per party ‘current’. In fact, the opposite has happened.

The candidates and campaign’s political melee

Ennahda’s candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, will be challenged for the Islamist vote by an independent candidate, and former post-2011 prime minister, Hamadi Jebali.  Boasting few political accomplishments, Moncef Marzouki, first president of the Second Republic who relied on Ennahda voters in his advance to the second round of the 2014 elections, may have exhausted his political capital. The so-called Destourian ‘family’ offers not only Chahed, but also former Minister of Defence and Ben Ali ally, Abdelkarim Zbidi, as well as ex-Nidaa member, Mohsen Marzouk. Other candidates, including lawyer Mohamed Abbou, unionist Abid Brikiand former communist Hamma Hammami, do not appear to be strong contenders.

The plethora of candidates induce a cacophony of claims, counter-claims and contradictions in the elections’ rhetoric. Parties are no longer a clear frame of reference for either political identities or programmes. While several candidates have promised to be a ‘president for all Tunisians,’ this pledge appears to be increasingly unrealistic within Tunisia’s polarised political climate. The 2014 constitution outlines the Presidency as a non-partisan role, but candidates are speaking in two tongues, at once seeking to win over their political bases and appealing to ‘all Tunisians.’ The result is a sort of discomfort with political identity and membership during this first round.

The elections attract the influence of money and the attendant drama. Football mogul Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain, now with Nidaa, has been dogged by questions over the source of his wealth. The wealthy businessperson and owner of Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, is serious electoral competition for both Chahed and, thanks to his charity work with marginalised people in the country’s interior regions, possibly Ennahda. Karoui, whose candidacy would have been denied under the modified election law that Essebsi failed to sign before his death, was arrested on 23 August, and remained in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

Yet Karoui, the leader of Qalb Tounes, remains in the race. In a democratising political system where judicial independence still leaves much to be desired, Chahed’s insistence that the arrest was not politically motivated has been unconvincing, especially as fellow candidates have expressed condemnation. Chahed is more or less using Karoui’s arrest to build steam for a failing anti-corruption ‘crusade.’

Then there is the Free Dustourian Party, led by Abir Moussi. Unabashedly hearkening back to the days of Ben Ali, she considers ‘revolution’ a misnomer for the political transformation set in motion in 2011. Moussi has made an entire campaign out of attacking Islamists, referring to Ennahda only as ‘al-Ikhwan’, a putative threat to democracy and the Tunisian way of life, vowing to chase them out of politics through restored presidential powers.

Abdelkarim Zbidi is perhaps the least eloquent candidate whose stumbling during interviews has drawn attention. Inept communication has not prevented the experienced government minister from becoming a frontrunner. Zbidi might be the West’s preferred leader in Tunisia, having overseen the Ministry of Defence and been privy to security operations. He could be labelled the quasi-American candidate, standing between the Islamists and key ministries, while overseeing the intelligence and security portfolios in close contact with Western military and political elites. In an affront to proponents of the 2014 constitution, who consider it to be a crowning achievement of the revolution, Zbidi has promised constitutional amendments to consolidate the powers of the presidency.

Zbidi, Mourou and Chahed have all attempted to channel Bourguiba, vowing to uphold Tunisia’s foreign policy ‘neutrality.’ Without fail, they rail against the ‘axis politics’ (siyasat al-mahawir) tearing the region asunder. What that means in practice remains unclear.

Absence of vision and substance

Equally vague is the well-worn promise to rejuvenate the country’s ‘economic diplomacy.’ Chahed, running on a ‘pragmatic’ platform of anti-corruption and paying lip service to the untapped potential of the country’s largely unemployed and restive youth, insists that he will renegotiate Tunisia’s agreements with the EU. (He recently renounced his French citizenship, per the constitutional mandate for presidential contenders, surprising many Tunisians who were unaware of his dual-citizenship.) Despite Chahed’s attempts to model himself after Bourguiba-era prime minister Hadi Noueira, he has over the last three years administered Tunisia’s US$2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with austerity strings attached. His unpopular policies have sparked recurring protests in the capital, as well as the country’s west and south. Construction workers and doctors are the latest groups to threaten an impending strike.

The prime minister’s record does not inspire confidence that he will reverse Tunisia’s descent into economic dependency or limit profiteering by foreign corporations at the expense of local economic gains. His constant spouting of numbers – hundreds of thousands of families receiving aid from the state and a GDP growth rate slowly inching toward 3 per cent – does not mask an unemployment rate of over 15 per cent (more than double the rate in some governorates), skyrocketing prices and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent. Tunisia’s exacerbating socioeconomic marginalisation has prompted many ‘revolutionaries’ of 2011 to opt out of formal politics altogether.

Islamists for presidential elections, not for presidency

Unlike the 2014 elections, the Islamists have thrown their hat into the presidential ring. Notably, their candidate is not party leader Rached Ghannouchi, but co-founder of the Ennahda movement and Vice President of Parliament Abdelfattah Mourou. According to their election slogan, Mourou is ‘the best Ennahda has to offer’ and, given the party’s base of 500 000 supporters, could conceivable advance to round two.

But for those drawing inevitable comparisons with Egypt in 2012, some important differences emerge. Mourou is not a candidate to win the presidential elections. Landing the presidency would be a real predicament for Tunisian democracy and Ennahda itself, which could sweep the board in the November parliamentary elections. Democratisation will buckle under a concentration of power. Here lies the secret of the durability of the Tunisian experiment: it continually produces and reproduces some form of political equilibrium and balance. This balance prevents any one political force from prevailing and continues to be Tunisia’s most important political specificity: the state will be shared as a function of political partnership, in a model close to consociational democracy. There are winners all around, but no losers – almost.

Perhaps Ennahda has reached political maturity as it competes for the presidency, with an eye on the bartering to come (muqayadah)? Short of winning, a strong and competitive presidential candidate will give Ennahda an edge in the wheeling and dealing of the second round, moderating the tempo of democracy to distribute patronage within the Tunisian political system.

By staying true to his word to avoid the presidential race, Ghannouchi can enjoy the status of the sole political elder after Essebsi. That would be a better position, lofty and distant from the travails of the most difficult post in Tunisia politics – that is, if he stays out of the next Parliamentary race for prime minister too.

Since the revolution in 2011, Tunisian premiers have left behind carcasses of battered heads of government. With varying degrees of success, all have failed to deliver the promised goods of development and political stability. Ghannouchi has never tried his hand in civil service or government posts. A late-comer to executive politics at a time of political strife, he would face socioeconomic challenges that would swiftly end his career on a low note. A better outcome for Tunisia’s democratisation would see Ghannouchi as a seasoned interlocutor politician, a moderator who may be needed to negotiate bargains to keep an entire country and democratic experiment on track.

Beyond the election ‘fetish’

All candidates for the presidency need to transcend the election fetish of using Tunisia’s fledgling and durable democratic process into a personality contest. Politicians need to find shared spaces to work together and collectively contribute to democratic and social success, as well as knowledge transfer. Even if Tunisia is democratic, it remains a poor country. It needs more than periodic elections and none of the candidates have offered convincing attempts to address this pressing issue. How can the candidates harness the abundant human capital and knowledge in the country to take advantage of the democratic moment?

Those looking for a leader to rekindle Tunisia’s revolutionary flame and its twin aims of huriyyah and karamah will be hard-pressed to find them among this year’s line-up. Instead, candidates clamour to prove their ‘stability’ credentials, such as Mourou’s claim that he will be the ‘affectionate father’ for Tunisians or Zbidi’s emphasis on strong states, which he extends so far as to pledge restoring full diplomatic ties with Damascus. Are we back to the all-too-familiar political discourse of patrimonialism? Whether or not such discourses still resonate with a divided public is for Tunisians to decide, as they interpret the outcome of the country’s televised presidential debates, a first in Tunisia and the Arab world, before casting their ballots on 15 September.

For the first time in Tunisian history, will we see a ‘deep state’ candidate (Zbidi) face off against an Islamist (Mourou)? Stay tuned for more twists and turns. Nothing stays the same for long in Tunisia’s democratising politics.

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