Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Transition in Tunisia Ends, Democracy Begins?

Presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi among his supporters, after casting his vote at a polling station in Tunis, 21 December 2014 Photo Eyevine/Hollandse Hoogte
Presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi among his supporters, after casting his vote at a polling station in Tunis, 21 December 2014 Photo Eyevine/Hollandse Hoogte

By electing a president and a parliament, Tunisia in 2014 left the era of transition and established itself as the Arab world’s only democracy. No wonder The Economist picked it as the Country of the Year for 2014. The veil of optimism should not, however, be allowed to hide the difficulties ahead.

In December the fifth president of the Republic of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected with 55.68% of the vote, defeating the current president Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, who received 44.32%. This was the first time in Arab history that a president in office lost an election and willingly handed over power to his opponent. It was also the first time that Tunisians were able to elect their president in such a free and relaxed atmosphere.

The day of the handover ceremony coincided with one of the harshest cold-waves to hit Tunisia for years; the streets were empty, but hundreds of thousands were glued to their TV sets to watch something they had never seen before. A new president escorted by a horse-mounted guard of honour entered the presidential palace, shaking hands with the departing president, the two men having a private discussion in the presidential office and finally greeting each other before Marzouki departed. No putsch, no assassination, no arrests; this was a civilized and peaceful transfer of power. Outside Tunisia as well, millions of Arabs watched the scene and cheered.

Beji Caid Essebsi

Caid Essebsi is an 88-year-old apparatchik who served during most of Bourguiba’s era and in the early years of Ben Ali’s and, after Ben Ali fled the country in 2011, was called back from his almost two-decade retirement to become prime minister. While himself a product of the ancien regime that ruled Tunisia between 1956 and 2011, Caid Essebsi was considered a maverick inside the system, withdrawing from power several times, especially when authoritarianism prevailed over pluralism. His appointment in February 2011 was thus accepted by large parts of the population, even the revolutionary youth.

When Ennahda won the parliamentary election of October 2011, it appointed a new government and a president, unrelated to the ancien regime. A few months later, Caid Essebsi emerged once again from retirement and started a movement that soon became a political party, Nidaa Tounes. He gathered around him most of those discontented with Ennahda’s victory, including affiliates of the ancien regime, leftists, labour-union activists, and secularists. Yet the main strength of Nidaa was its ability to overwhelm the “machine” of the ancien regime, with its clientelist habits and the networks (e.g., police, businessmen, media) attached to it.

It was thus not surprising to hear, after the results of the 2014 elections were announced, a clamour from the opposing camp and denunciations of fraud and expressions of sorrow for the “end of the revolution and the success of the counterrevolution.”

Caid Essebsi’s campaign slogan was “the battle of the state against anarchy”; Marzouki’s was “the revolution facing the counterrevolution.” Yet, with all its strong words and threats, Tunisia’s campaign was peaceful. In the rare moments when supporters from the two sides met, security forces quickly intervened; these were mainly clashes of words, not of weapons.

A political debate

From another perspective, “revolution vs. counterrevolution” is actually a political debate that grew in strength with the presidential elections. It replaced the identity polarization—the “secularists vs. Islamists” divide— that characterized Tunisia in 2012 and 2013. Tunisia thus moved one step further from the Arab morass of identity politics, which is tearing apart Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, to some extent, Libya and Egypt.

The shift in rhetoric happened because of Ennahda’s decision not to put forward a candidate for president. It was thus difficult to keep the identity debate going, as Marzouki openly claimed his secularism. He was indeed the preferred candidate of Ennahda’s followers, but he also received the support of many young Tunisians, including revolutionaries and the majority of the marginalized citizens of Tunisia’s south. He was also the favourite of some radical movements, including some Salafist groups, the Leagues to Protect the Revolution and radical web activists such as Takriz and Fallagas.

Moncef Marzouki featured the “values of the revolution” in his speeches and during the electoral campaign. He portrayed himself as the last barrier against the Arab counterrevolution, the custodian of the Arab Spring’s last surviving stonghold. Most of those who voted for Marzouki consider Caid Essebsi the new Ben Ali, and their opposition to his rule will be fierce in coming  years.

When the preliminary results were announced, Marzouki’s team was dissatisfied and alluded to possible fraud but ended up accepting the results. In a heated speech to thousands of his followers, Marzouki warned of the return of the ancien regime and announced the launch of the Movement of the People of Citizens (MPC), which may become a new political party including members of his dwindling Congres Pour la Republique party and various allies and smaller parties. The MPC’s characteristics are still unclear, but it may position itself as an alternative to Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, as the “revolutionary alternative.” Given the factions comprising it, the MPC may resort to violence in the future.

Caid Essebsi, on the other hand, has always pledged that he would be the president of all Tunisians, although he shunned President Marzouki and his supporters during the electoral campaign, while his party’s main strategy was to oppose Ennahda and its “obscurantist project.” The rhetoric used by Caid Essebsi’s supporters, the “Bjabij,” (Caid Essebsi’s nickname is “Bajbouj”) stresses the exclusion of the other side (mainly Islamists and radical revolutionaries).

It is feared that he will be a divisive president, if members of his party clash with Ennahda’s or Marzouki’s supporters or if he resorts to the old politics of repression used so assiduously by the ancien regime. His age is another issue: he will be 93 when his term ends in 2019 (there are rare—and notorious—examples of heads of state who ruled at such an advanced age). Tunisia also faces problems transcending ideology and political divisions—a declining economy, growing insecurity and war on its borders.

Beji Caid Essebsi’s presidency brings hope, but there are many issues to overcome.

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