Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisia: A Unique Arab Democracy

Tunisians take part in a campaign rally near Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis, 24 October 2014 / Photo Corbis
Tunisians take part in a campaign rally near Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis, 24 October 2014 / Photo Corbis

Tunisians elected a new parliament on 26 October 2014, beginning a new phase in the country’s transition to democracy. The results gave the nationalists of the winning Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamists of the losing Ennahda together more than half of the seats. With a turnout of about 60 percent, absolute freedom of the vote, and a peaceful atmosphere not seen elsewhere in the Arab world, the future seems secure for the initiators of the Arab Spring.

These were the second free elections in the country’s history, with effective multiparty participation, serious political campaigns, and thousands of candidates. Citizen participation was about ten percent lower than in the previous election (on 23 October 2011) but was high by international standards. There were also fewer candidates than in 2011, but that was expected, especially as many parties merged and numerous “independents” from the last elections enrolled in the combined parties.

Influential media outlets and experts warned that terrorists would prevent the elections, and worrisome stories accompanied the run-up to the elections. News of militants’ arrests and stories of foiled attacks came on a weekly basis. Three days before the vote, a terrorist cell was uncovered in the suburbs of Tunis. The house where the terrorists were hiding was besieged and an exchange of gunfire ensued, leaving several dead and wounded. Nonetheless, the election went off smoothly, and no incidents were reported.

Most importantly, the results of the vote were not contested, and the loser, the Islamist socio-liberal party Ennahda, congratulated the winner, Nidaa Tounes, the next day.

In 2011, Ennahda won 90 seats (41 percent) in the National Constituent Assembly, the parliament tasked with writing the country’s constitution. It was followed by three other parties: the “secular revolutionary” CPR, whose founder, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, became president of the republic, and the “secular social” Ettakatol, whose president, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, was chosen as the parliament’s speaker. The two formed, along with Ennahda, the ruling Troika (Tunisia’s government between November 2011 and January 2014) and promised to guarantee Tunisia’s secularism. Al-Aridha, the third winner alongside Ennahda, whose discourse alternates between Islamist conservatism and populist socialism, was kept out of the negotiations and had little impact on the subsequent political scene.

In the 2014 elections, Ennahda came second, with 65 seats (32 percent). The party on top, with 85 seats (39 percent), which will be tasked with forming the new government, is Nidaa Tounes (the Call of Tunisia). It was created after 2011, but its founder and present president, Beji Caid al-Sebsi, was the prime minister who led the country’s transition in 2011. An apparatchik of Tunisia’s governments since the 1950s, he disapproved of Ennahdha and decided to build a front to counter its strength. Many heard his call, and a new party was created, Nidaa Tounes.

Nidaa Tounes

Nidaa Tounes was able to bring together those who felt marginalized in 2011—the remnants of the Ancien Regime, as well as secularists, leftists, and syndicalists who saw Ennahda’s arrival as a threat. The party was thus built around the idea of confronting Ennahda, both as an Islamist party and as a poor manager of the country’s economy and security (both fields’ indicators went down under the Troika). Caid al-Sebsi portrayed himself as a new Habib Bourguiba (the father of independence) and pledged to rebuild Tunisia on a Bourguibist basis, that is, secular and strong. The party is thus described as secular because it confronts the Islamists; as Ancien Regime and nationalist, because it has adopted the old discourse of the nation-state; and as mildly “socialist”, because of this and its leftist component.

The success of Nidaa Tounes also owed something to its electoral campaign, called “Vote Utile” (the useful vote). The party’s propagandists depicted themselves as necessary to the country, the only ones able to save Tunisia from Ennahda’s mismanagement and “obscurantist” policies. The Vote Utile operation worked and proved disastrous for anyone else claiming to defend Tunisia’s secularist achievements, starting with Nidaa Tounes’s allies, such as the Union for Tunisia (no seats), but also Ennahda’s “secular” allies in the Troika, CPR (four seats) and Ettakatol (no seats).

Ennahdha’s decline was due partly to the strong offensive of Nidaa Tounes, which attracted the favour of Tunisia’s major media outlets, as well as the client networks of the Ancien Regime. But the decline was due also to the party’s inability to manage the Tunisian state under the Troika, as well as the negative image it has among much of the population, connecting Ennahda to economic decline and the growth of terrorism.

No Winner

Nidaa and Ennahda are followed by three parties: UPL, al-Jabha, and Afek Tounes. UPL, with 16 seats, is a liberal party usually described as populist and “secular”. Al-Jabha, with 15 seats, is a secular front on the extreme left, with a communist past and a long history of hatred for the Ancien Regime (although it was allied against Ennahda with Nidaa Tounes in 2013). Afek Tounes, with eight seats, is a “secular” party of liberal inclinations.

There is therefore no absolute winner. The parties need to build alliances in order to lead the country, or at least to find compromises. It is misleading to see the results merely as a victory of secularism over Islamism. Economic factors must be taken into consideration, which actually locate Nidaa Tounes closer to Ennahda than its other three foes. Moreover, ideological divisions still separate the ultra-liberals of UPL and Afek Tounes from the extreme leftist al-Jabha and the mildly socialist Nidaa Tounes.

Many analysts, foreign experts, and diplomats favour a different solution: a technocratic and neutral government, resembling the one that now rules Tunisia, replacing the Troika in January 2014. Political parties would keep an eye on the government and perhaps be given a few ministerial portfolios, but their political skirmishes would be restricted to parliament. Current affairs, especially on the economic level, would be left to the independent government.

In the meantime, the peaceful climate prevailing in Tunisia and the understanding Tunisian politicians gained of the uniqueness of the country’s position and its fragility in a volatile region suggest the reason for optimism.

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