Tunisia Moves to the Next Stage

by Issandr El Amrani , Ursula Lindsey | published November 8, 2011

Tunisia was the first Arab country to have a pro-democracy uprising in the winter of 2010-2011, and now it is the first to have held an election. Tunisians took to the polls on October 23 to choose a constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s first democratic constitution and appointing a new transitional government. The elections were judged free and fair by a record number of domestic and foreign observers, testimony to the seriousness with which the interim government approached the poll. In the eyes of many observers, Tunisia is lighting the way forward where others -- notably Egypt -- are faltering.

In the days immediately after the January 14 departure of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years, the country’s future did not look so promising. Ben Ali’s former ministers attempted to provide continuity without popular legitimacy, the economy was a shambles, and protests and insecurity continued. It took three months for a government more representative of the revolution to be appointed, the former ruling party disbanded and the former regime elements sniping at passersby rounded up. The government, trade unions and major employers negotiated salary increases (generally of 10-15 percent), thus beginning to address the socio-economic grievances that were part of the uprising, notably in Tunisia’s poorer interior provinces, where mass protests against poverty and unemployment had taken place intermittently since at least 2008. With these tasks done, the path was cleared for the constituent assembly election, whose rules were hammered out between technocrats who had served under Ben Ali but were untainted by the worst of his abuses, and political forces that had to transform themselves quickly from underground and vanguard parties into mass-based organizations.

Tunisia’s transition thus far is not perfect -- much remains to be done in transitional justice and reform of state institutions like the security sector, among other areas -- but it has passed a major test in holding a credible, democratic election that generated a remarkably high turnout. Over 90 percent of the country’s 4.1 million registered voters went to the polls. The new constituent assembly and the next government have much work ahead of them, to be sure, but a threshold has been crossed: The transition is now in its second phase, able to concentrate on institutional reform and new government policies to redress socio-economic inequity.

An Islamist Victory

The Islamist Ennahda party was the election’s big winner, garnering 90 of the assembly’s 217 seats. It had been widely predicted that Ennahda would do well, even if many judged that the electoral system chosen -- a “largest remainder” proportional list system -- would decrease its organizational advantage. In fact, the reverse seems to have happened: Not only did the party win a plurality of seats nationwide, it won a plurality in almost every district in the country, including in Tunis, the capital. Moreover, Ennahda won three and a half times as many seats as its nearest rival, the centrist Congrès Pour la République (CPR) party led by long-exiled dissident Moncef Marzouki, and nearly five times the share of the popular vote (Ennahda controls 41 percent of seats with 37 percent of the popular vote, compared to CPR’s 12 percent of seats with 8 percent of the popular vote). In other words, not only is Ennahda clearly Tunisia’s strongest party, it appears to have deeper support, more evenly spread across the country, than any other party, having won at least 30 percent of seats in all districts but two, and more than one seat in every single domestic district.

Ennahda started as an Islamist movement in Tunisia in the 1970s, partly inspired by the Muslim Brothers of Egypt. In the group’s early years, some of its members engaged in violence, bombing hotels and attacking a ruling-party headquarters, killing one person and splashing acid in the faces of others. Its supporters in the armed forces even plotted to take power in a coup in the last years of the rule of Habib Bourguiba, the secular-minded dictator who came to power with Tunisian independence from France in 1956.

Although Ben Ali warmed to Ennahda after he seized the presidency in a “medical coup” in 1987, the honeymoon was short-lived. Ennahda last competed in elections in Tunisia in 1989, with some of its members running as independents. After the independents made a strong showing, Ben Ali persecuted the group’s members and supporters on a massive scale. The families of Rachid Ghannouchi and other leaders of the movement fled the country, first to Algeria and then to Great Britain, where they were granted political asylum. London became a hub of Ennahda’s exiles, with Ghannouchi continuing to refine his religious ideas and taking the group’s official ideology on a more moderate path, away from the radicalism of Algeria during its civil war or even the more conservative strains of Islamism among the Egyptian Muslim Brothers.

The brutality that many exiled Ennahda members had endured also shaped the group, moving its platform toward a stronger defense of human rights than previously. Days before the October 23 election, at a party rally in the large lower-class Tunis suburb of Ben Arouss, speakers emphasized this legacy of suffering at the hands of the Ben Ali regime. “Every family in Tunisia has a member of Ennahda who was jailed, fired from their job, tortured, killed,” Ghannouchi told the crowd of thousands of men, women and children.

The other message of the Ennahda campaign was one of reassurance. Since the 1980s, Ghannouchi has condemned violence and said he supports political pluralism and democracy. The party endorsed the election’s requirement that electoral lists feature male and female candidates in alternating slots and pledged not to change the country’s progressive personal status law. The model Ennahda most often invokes is that of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP. “We want to enter modernity as Muslims, not as unbelievers,” Ghannouchi told the rally. Every single speaker emphasized the group’s support for women’s rights. Souad Abderrahim, a charismatic pharmacist and the only unveiled female candidate on one of Ennahda’s lists in Tunis, told the crowd: “We who were oppressed will oppress no one. We want to end this phobia.” (The mollifying stance persisted after the campaign: A large celebration planned for the evening after election day, when preliminary results clearly showed Ennahda in the lead, was canceled, apparently to avoid images of an Islamist victory dance.)

Female candidates -- who were generally not given the top spot on party lists, whether Ennahda’s or anyone else’s -- nonetheless won 24 percent of the vote, and will hold 49 seats in the assembly.

The Ennahda candidates’ stress on liberal, tolerant attitudes -- in part a reaction to campaign scaremongering by secular opponents and much of the elite media -- probably does not reflect the diversity of views among Ennahda supporters, which include markedly more conservative voices. While reporters focused on the speeches at the Ben Arouss rally, a quick perusal of the Islamist literature on sale there showed that prominent ultra-conservative writers such as the Egyptian salafi Sheikh Muhammad Hassan were well represented. Whether Ennahda is as liberal as it claims to be may largely depend on its future leadership. Ghannouchi, the historic figurehead, is scheduled to retire in January 2012, when the party will elect a new leader.

The rally, like the party’s campaign in general, was well managed, positive in tone and perfectly on-message. In the ten months since the revolution, Ennahda has constituted an impressive national network, with a speed and efficiency that its secular rivals found disturbing and impossible to match. The group’s years in exile appear not only to have moderated its views but also to have formed a cadre of competent operatives motivated by family histories of persecution. Many are well versed in foreign languages and international political discourse -- including Ghannouchi’s daughters, who act as articulate spokeswomen for the group, particularly with the English-speaking press.

On election day itself, Ennahda had more observers in polling stations than any other party, working in shifts and even gathering statistics about voters. The party also reportedly provided transportation to some of its constituents. Voters who chose Ennahda sometimes explained their choice in terms of religion, but just as often they spoke of the party’s unwavering opposition to Ben Ali (in contrast to some “loyal opposition” parties who they said had lent the regime undeserved legitimacy) and of their belief that the Islamists were honest people who would help the country find its moral compass after years of corruption and abuses.

Questions of Fairness, Questions of Funding

On election day, in a small rural town about 30 miles west of Tunis, two young veiled women who had run as part of an independent list representing diplomés chomeurs (unemployed university graduates) stood bitterly by as voters lined up patiently at the local school. The two women, who did not want to give their names, had realized their list would not win. They complained that they had only had limited government funding, whereas the well-heeled local Ennahda candidate had used money to entice voters and told them: “If you don’t vote Ennahda you’re not a Muslim.”

In some districts, nearly a hundred lists competed, most of them inexperienced, local and/or independent. The overabundance of choices is probably a particularity of these inaugural elections, reflecting post-revolutionary enthusiasm and a reaction to the suppression of political forces during the Ben Ali years. In future elections, political forces will most likely consolidate around a few major national parties, as well as regional lists (assuming the electoral system remains the same). But the fragmentation of the political spectrum did have one important effect: The biggest bloc of votes in most districts, usually after Ennahda, tended to be dispersed among parties and lists that did not obtain any seats. In at least 13 districts, these “wasted votes” collectively amounted to a larger proportion of the vote than what any one party took. Nationally, about 28.5 percent of the popular vote was “wasted” -- providing a potential constituency for major parties in the next elections.

To some of those participating in democratic competition for the first time, the use of influence and money seemed inherently unfair. There were also, by all accounts, infractions of Tunisia's election law, which bans districting money or in-kind benefits. In practice, it proved impossible to prevent party members and supporters from building support through targeted largesse. There were many reports of parties -- Islamist and not -- distributing gifts such as cigarettes, gas coupons, private lessons and school materials, and promising, for example, to provide meat for the upcoming ‘Id al-Adha.

The election law’s also prohibits “any foreign funding, direct or indirect” of political parties and any non-state subsidies. The bill sets a 30,000-euro cap ($42,000) on private donations and instructs parties to appoint accountants from a government-approved list. Parties reported being audited by the country’s Institut Supérieur Indépendent pour les Elections (Higher Independent Election Institute, better known by its French acronym ISIE), but how much money the parties raised and spent has not made public.

Domestic and international election observers were unanimous in commending the transparent, peaceable and generally well-organized conduct of the election. Some did point out violations, however. According to the ISIE itself, infractions included sending SMS messages, holding gatherings, shouting slogans and handing out voting materials after the campaigning period had officially ended (on October 21) and near polling stations. There was one report of the head of a polling station threatening voters. By the low standards of regional elections and even by those of elections in advanced democracies, however, the Tunisian poll can generally be considered free and fair.

The Case of the Expatriate Islamist

And then there is the case of the Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition) list, the election’s other great surprise and controversy. This unknown and -- at least in the coastal cities -- almost unheard-of coalition, led by controversial expatriate Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, stunned the entire country by winning 28 seats (later dropped to 19 after the ISIE disqualified six of the party’s lists). It performed well in the rural, unemployed, disgruntled interior, notably in Sidi Bouzid, where Hamdi is from and where the uprising against Ben Ali began.

In calling him “a serial turncoat,” the state-owned newspaper La Presse encapsulated the view held of Hamdi by most of the Tunisian political elite. [1] Coming from the rural petit bourgeoisie, Hamdi was a leader of the Islamist student movement in the early 1980s. He fled the country in 1987, and forged a close relationship with Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi while they were both exiles in London. After a mysterious but dramatic falling-out with Ennahda that continues to this day (the movement has refused even to speak to Hamdi, who has remained outside Tunisia), in 1999 Hamdi founded the London-based al-Mustaqilla satellite TV channel.

At its beginnings, the channel -- whose source of funding remains unknown -- hosted some of Tunisia’s best-known dissidents and provoked the fury of the Ben Ali regime. But this start was followed by rapprochement with the regime, notably a notorious talk show episode in which Hamdi praised the piety of the former first lady, Leila Trabelsi, on the air. He also frequently hosts religious conservatives and Wahhabi sheikhs, leading some observers to suggest that the channel has the backing of Saudi Arabia or a private Saudi foundation. In fact, al-Mustaqilla, like Hamdi, had an Islamo-populist tone and a mixed, not to say incoherent, political message.

It is nonetheless on the bare-bones set of al-Mustaqilla’s talk shows that Hamdi -- who presents himself as a simple, devout, put-upon outsider -- appears to have built most of his profile and support in the impoverished rural interior of Tunisia. Hamdi, who speaks Tunisian Arabic with the accent of the Sidi Bouzid area, targeted his home region during his party’s campaign. Aridha Chaabia had a simple program: universal health care, monthly unemployment benefits of 200 dinars (about $139), free transportation for anyone over the age of 65, and public charity funds (“inspired by the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings,” according to Hamdi) for those in need. The plans for financing these projects were not particularly convincing, however. Most famously, the party was ridiculed for promising a bridge or tunnel to Italy to boost Tunisia’s economy.

After Aridha Chaabia’s stunning finish, there was speculation that the party had benefited from the support of elements of the former ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique, or RCD. A few days after the election, the ISIE invalidated six of the Petition’s lists, or nine of its seats. According to the electoral institute, the group had committed campaign finance violations, receiving funding “from sources that are not public or personal.” [2] This rather cryptic explanation raises questions as to what exactly were the infractions committed by the Aridha lists and as to whether other parties received the same scrutiny. Members of the suspended lists are contesting the decision in court. Meanwhile, riots broke out in Sidi Bouzid, where the headquarters of Ennahda and government buildings were reportedly attacked and a curfew was imposed. Hamdi announced that all his party’s candidates would withdraw, but they refused to back out, so he changed his position.

Aridha’s success -- and suspensions -- shows the difficulty of creating a level playing field in a new democracy. It also points to the fundamental social, cultural and economic fracture in the country, between the middle-class, Francophone, urban coastal areas and the undeveloped rural hinterland. The rural south and west initiated the uprising, paid the most significant price, in terms of lives and economic dislocation, and today feels more aggrieved than ever. It is particularly unfortunate that the disenfranchised interior -- which appears to have supported Hamdi because of his regional roots, outsider status and unvarnished pledges of wealth redistribution -- will feel once again looked down upon and discriminated against.

The Performance of Secular Parties

Ennahda’s strong showing was to a large degree expected. But two different interpretations of this result have emerged since the October 23 poll: One points out that while Ennahda came in first, it does not have a majority and that the next six, mostly secular, parties can balance its weight in the constituent assembly. The other is that while Ennahda is for now being modest and cautious about its win -- and may have tried to ensure it did not obtain a majority, as several leaders clearly stated a majority would not be in their interest -- its base of supporters probably vastly outweighs that of any single non-Islamist party. Indeed, in terms of the nationwide popular vote, no secular party obtained more than 8 percent (compared to Ennahda’s 37 percent) and even if one combines the next eight parties after Ennahda, they account for only 25 percent of the ballots. While the electoral system allows other parties to be disproportionally represented, in other words, Ennahda appears to have a position of structural dominance among the electorate.

For now, secular parties can take comfort from the fact that Ennahda itself recognizes it needs to build alliances with centrist secularists, particularly those with a credible record of opposing the Ben Ali regime. Indeed, one critic of the Islamist party -- a former RCD member -- suggested that CPR and Ettakatol, the two leading parties after Ennahda, received covert support from the Islamists. This claim, although unsubstantiated, has circulated widely in secularist ranks. The success of secular parties who did not campaign against Ennahda is more likely based on strong campaigns and programs that were more than just anti-Islamist.

Several well-funded and high-profile secular parties that built their campaigns around uncompromising opposition to Ennahda obtained poor results. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), an opposition party under Ben Ali, had been seen as Ennahda’s main rival. Najib Chebbi founded the PDP in 1983 and faced constant harassment as he attempted to contest elections (he was banned from running in the 2009 presidential race). In the months preceding the election, the PDP concentrated its message upon vehement denunciation of Ennahda, replete with dire warnings that the Islamist party would drag the country back to “the Middle Ages.” The party, co-managed by Chebbi and Maya Jribi, garnered 17 seats and has said it will not join a national coalition with Ennahda, but rather stay in opposition. Considering that the PDP reportedly outspent most of its peers -- in part on American political consultants and an image revamp -- the results are bound to be disappointing, notably for the media-savvy Chebbi, a fixture on Tunisia’s political talk shows who had hoped to be the country’s next president.

The Pole Democratique Moderniste (Modern Democratic Pole), another militantly secular party whose members included many Tunisian celebrities and supporters drawn from the young urban elite, performed even worse, winning only 5 seats -- four in the greater Tunis area and one abroad. Supporters of secular parties staged small demonstrations in Tunis contesting the election results and accusing Ennahda of cheating. Many commentators, even those sympathetic to concerns about the Islamists’ agenda, pointed out that the Tunisian elite was being undemocratic, dismissing the choice of a large portion of their fellow citizens and wanting to maintain their entrenched monopoly on public life.

On the other hand, parties who differentiated themselves from Ennahda but said they were willing to work with it, who emphasized the importance of the secular nature of the state while expressing respect or understanding for the religious feelings of many Tunisians, did relatively well.

The second-strongest party in the assembly after Ennahda -- with 30 seats -- will be the CPR, led by Moncef Marzouki, a left-wing physician who went into exile after his party was banned in 2001. The well-known harassment to which Marzouki was subjected over the years (including having him followed by hundreds of plainclothes police when he briefly tried to return to the country) for his opposition to Ben Ali appears to have been a strong factor in his group’s popularity. Marzouki also appears to have had ideas about how to carry out the transition that differed from the Tunisian mainstream, including Ennahda, with a focus on the need for transitional justice and ensuring that a return to autocracy becomes impossible -- notably by making sure that Tunisians’ most pressing grievances, such as poverty and justice for the revolution’s victims, are a priority.

“Our obsession, with a capital ‘O,’ is never again. Never again dictatorship. We have lived through 50 years of a dictatorship that has destroyed the soul of the country, destroyed its institutions. The next regime must be, of course, democratic, but also stable and efficient,” Marzouki said in a post-election interview with the French online publication Mediapart. [3] This stance is in part why CPR has, alone among the major parties, proposed a longer transition period for writing the new constitution, with interim power sharing among a new president, prime minister and speaker of Parliament, and an immediate focus on the police and judicial reform that Tunisia’s interim governments have thus far ignored, despite the creation of a commission to examine the issue.
The socialist Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties), which won third place, is also headed by a respected former dissident, Mustafa Ben Jaafar. Ben Jaafar was part of the first government after the revolution, which he quit because of the presence of ministers close to the old regime. Ettakatol, established in 2002 and subject to the usual harassment, was a small, nearly underground, group under Ben Ali. Since the revolution, the party has been successful in attracting qualified, passionate members with no previous background in politics. Its campaign was characterized by some original events (simultaneous gatherings in all the Place de la République squares across Tunisia for the signing of a “republican pact”) and ideas (a redistricting of the country into horizontal “strips” that would force public administration to integrate the development plans of wealthier coastal regions with poorer inland regions).

Ettakatol’s attitude toward Ennahda is one of wary engagement. While worrying that the party leadership’s moderate views may not reflect the sentiments of a more conservative, in some cases even extremist, base, Ettakatol leaders believe the Islamist group has earned its place in political life and that it is a matter of national interest to find a consensus across the Islamist-secularist divide. But they are looking before they leap: One Ettakatol politburo member, for instance, advocated that votes in the constituent assembly should not be secret, to keep members accountable and make any political deals more visible.

The first post-Ben Ali government resulting from an election -- Tunisia’s first free and fair one, at that -- is likely to be composed of an Ennahda-CPR-Ettakatol alliance. With over 62 percent of seats in the constituent assembly, this coalition should be stable enough to provide a centrist consensus for both the constitution and government policy. Yet, even within this alliance, there are significant divergences over how to proceed with regard to the constitution and the mechanisms by which it will be decided, what kind of policies the interim government should (or has the legitimacy to) carry out, as well as negotiations over the government’s formation (with many secularists, for instance, weary of Ennahda’s interest in the education portfolio). The question of who will be Tunisia’s next president and whether the political system will be parliamentary (as Ennahda prefers) or semi-presidential (as CPR, Ettakatol and most other parties advocate) will also loom large over the next year. Reconciling these differences will not be easy, but at least, for the first time in its post-independence history, Tunisia has genuine politics.


[1] La Presse, October 30, 2011.
[2] Al-Mashhad, October 28, 2011.
[3] “Moncef Marzouki: La Tunisie est capable d’être gouvernée par des modérés,” Mediapart, November 3, 2011.

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