Guest Post: Tunisia 2014
I was very fortunate to receive a guest post on Tunisia’s 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections from Tom Cui, who knows Tunisia and its politics inside and out.
Parliamentary and Presidential elections were held in Tunisia over the past two months, marking the first elections under the new Constitution passed in early 2014. Elections to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People took place on October 26. Elections for the Presidency took place on November 23, with a runoff on December 21.
Seats in the Assembly are allocated on a proportional basis; specifically, Tunisia uses a closed-list, multiple-constituency proportional representation system using highest averages. For electoral purposes, Tunisia’s 24 governorates are divided into 27 regional constituencies, in addition to another 6 for Tunisian expatriates in various countries. The Presidential election is a replicate of the French format; a first round is held with all candidates, and the top two scorers face off in the second. Both the Assembly and the President are elected for five years.
The Republic of Tunisia is a nation of ten million people, spanning no more than a thousand kilometres on either side. Tucked between Algeria and Libya, the nation still has all the features of other North African states: a varied geography from mountains to the Saharan desert and an overwhelmingly Arab Muslim population. And, since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi at the end of 2010, Tunisians have ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, rewrote their constitution and transitioned into democracy.
As far as international elections go, Tunisia’s may be among this year’s most dramatic. The country is hailed as the Arab Spring’s one success story, home to peaceful transition instead of coups and civil war. Without a careful look at Tunisian history, however, a reader may point Tunisia’s success on pure luck, or the natural outcome of an “educated, westernized” people. Such explanations are unhelpful.
Before interpreting Tunisia’s transition and current political landscape, we must expand on two key ideas rarely mentioned in the foreign press:
- The Tunisian state’s institutions are distinct from those in other Arab countries. To put it simply, Tunisia does not have a semi-independent military (like in Egypt or maybe Yemen), is not bound up in clear sectarian divides (like in Iraq or Syria), and may have most closely emulated the French bureaucracy out of its former colonies. The old regime in Tunisia was not responsible or representative by most means, but the institutional history has gravitated Tunisian politics toward the role of “The State”.
- Tunisia has significant regional divisions, and any conflict or political divides between regions did not pop into being right after the Revolution. They are the results of decades of broken promises by and protests against a centralized state that often tried to suppress dissidents. Nor is there a simple division between North and South, but rather of different sections of society still trying to figure out how politics can resolve their problems.
What follows is a rather lengthy overview of modern Tunisian history that emphasizes the above points. Some key takeaways will be repeated in later sections.
The Bourguiba Years
While Tunisian history go back quite a ways (starting from Arab occupation in the 9th century, or even from the Carthaginian Empire’s beginnings), the history of the Tunisian Republic begins in the middle of the 20th. Tunisia’s independence movement caught steam in the thirties, as a wave of Tunisians born under the French protectorate took to protest and resistance. Under the protectorate, the dynasty which ruled the country as the Bey of Tunis retained a degree of autonomy while privileging French business and investment. By the fifties, however, a coalition of union leaders and socialist leaders forced independence in 1956. The same leftists who were the vanguard of the revolution abolished the monarchy and declared a republic in 1957.
By this time, the Tunisian state had a clear leader: Habib Bourguiba. President for thirty years, he defined the modern Tunisian state and its secular, westernized appearance. That would be, of course, a very sanitized version of history.
One of the first independence leaders to radicalize, his ascension to state leader involved tightening control over his Neo-Destour party, seeking to coopt labour and civic forces and purged fellow leaders who did not adopt his agenda of immediate secularization and westernisation. Fraught with fears of counterrevolution, he declared Tunisia a one-party state (ruled by the now-renamed Socialist Destourian Party [PSD] ) in the sixties and built up a formidable security apparatus.
In terms of policy, Bourguiba was a socialist with dreams of appendaging Arab characteristics to the system. A fierce nationalist, slavish to creating a Tunisian identity, he nevertheless wanted to contort the country’s Muslim and Arab culture into an European look. Among his achievements include rights for women, up to banning the hijab; the creation of a public education and health sector; state provision of contraception; the evacuation of all French occupation in the country; state control of religious authorities; and a campaign to suppress Islamic practice opposed to development.
As far as “Bourguiba moments” go, the most memorable may be when he discouraged fasting during Ramadan by drinking orange juice on public television. His strain of deritualized Islam remains readily seen in the country’s coastal, richer areas.
This history is, again, growing sanitized. Economically, Tunisia lurched into its first crisis. An ill-formed farm collectivization scheme in the late sixties lead to chaos and protests in central Tunisia. With collectivization’s failure (and a successful purge of its proponents) Bourguiba changed course and appointed Hédi Nouira, a market liberal who opened up trade with Europe.
The economy did improve, and this event is indicative; for all of the old regime’s faults, it did produce talent, some of which was noticed by leadership as long as it was aimed to “modernize”. Bourguiba lacked great skill in domestic management, and consequently tasked the job to a growing Ministry. He was much more concerned with social policy, diplomacy and building a cult of personality around the nationalist movement, with him as “Supreme Combattant.”
The second crisis came at the end of the seventies. Up to this point, Bourguiba’s PSD maintained its alliance with Tunisia’s general labour union, the UGTT, founded during the days of the independence movement and continually the country’s strongest civic force. Tensions began to form with further liberalization between the UGTT, the employers’ union and the PSD.
A decisive split led to a general strike in 1978—so called “Black Thursday”—turning to violent suppression in Tunis and imprisonment for organizers. This was followed by an armed insurrection in the mining region of Gafsa, purportedly funded by Libya and Algeria.
Bourguiba, by this time allied to France and the U.S., used the West’s military funding to maintain his authority. It came at a difficult time; as a nationalist first and foremost, Bourguiba steered the country against pan-Arabism and toward an equal partnership with the West. (This is not to say that he was not pro-Palestine or antagonistic to the Arab world, only that he was hard to pinpoint.)
In doing so, he has gone against the grain of Gaddafi’s Libya, but also those in Southern Tunisia who have never surrendered the ideas of Salah Ben Youssef, who professed greater Arab unity against all colonial forces. It also comes on the coattails of the Iranian Revolution, and political Islam did not waste time reaching those alienated under Bourguiba’s state.
Though much of this history is undocumented, enough claim that Bourguiba ruled up to this point on a regime of intimidation and torture. His ruthless streak had already resulted in total command of his party, and by the eighties he was willing to confront any resistance with arms. To put it less politely, his grip on reality was losing hold.
As a sign of appeasement, multiparty democracy was announced to be reinstated in 1981. But, since Bourguiba and his state still determined which parties were legal, the newly authorized parties were all socialist in nature (including the Tunisian Communist Party, the liberal Movement of Social Democrats, and the collectivist Party of Popular Unity). Under no chances was the greatest threat to the state approved: the Islamic Tendency Movement, led by a well-travelled professor called Rashid Ghannouchi. What awaited these Islamists was a show trial that locked them away in prison.
The worst was yet to come: Tunisia’s economy remained mostly state-controlled, and by the mid-eighties faced a balance-of-payments and public debt crises. An IMF plan drawn up required an end to subsidies for grain products, which obviously meant more expensive bread. To Tunisians away from the coast or in Tunis’s poorer quarters, this would be fatal.
The result was the “bread riots” of 1984, which involved protest and crackdown in the South, the interior region of Kasserine and Tunis. There was no turning back from this point; the Tunisian state looked like it faced a pincer attack from leftists and Islamist movements. Ghannouchi’s party has now established itself, only for its leaders to be arrested again and sentenced to death or hard labour.
The Tunisian Ministry, having mostly been chosen at Bourguiba’s leisure, turned unstable. Prime Ministers fell as they were blamed for the growing social unrest. One man, however, continued to rise in the ranks; Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a military man who lead the crackdowns on protests in 1978 and 1984. Bourguiba appointed him as Interior Minister in 1986, then Prime Minister in 1987. The President had now chosen him as his destined successor; Ben Ali, however, moved first.
The Ben Ali years
On November 7, 1987, Ben Ali took the airwaves with an announcement. After summoning doctors who signed a report on Bourguiba’s senility, the Prime Minister has detained the President and assumed executive control. This is the only military coup that Tunisia has seen, though it ranks among the world’s most discreet. Bourguiba lived the rest of his life under house arrest in various places until his death in 2000 (when he was entombed in a very ornate mausoleum he had built in 1963).
Ben Ali started out with a reformer’s look; he promised multiparty democracy and a liberalized politics, and to his credit he never did reinstate single-party rule. Under him, the PSD was transformed into the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Officials in the MTI, despised and condemned to death under Bourguiba, were released. That did not mean they were allowed to organize themselves.
Open elections in 1989 showed that Islamists were a considerable force in the South and Tunis, even if Ghannouchi’s now-retitled Ennahda Movement could not officially contest. This was enough of a sign for Ben Ali to escalate a crackdown on all Islamist activity, and they were continuously accused of fostering violence and plotting to subvert the state. The police force was bloated to about 150000 in the early nineties, twice as many police officers per capita as the U.K. Ghannouchi and others were fortunate enough to flee to exile in London.
From thereon, Ben Ali ruled with Bourguiba’s degree of ruthlessness. Both presidents were stridently anti-Islamist, anti-pan-Arabist, anti-Caliphate or anything of the sort. While Ben Ali took care to no longer mention Bourguiba and erase his cult of personality, the idea of a secular Tunisian nationalism remained a powerful tool. Ben Ali also sought to capture civil society, and he did achieve some success by fostering close ties with the UGTT, the employers’ union, as well as other NGOs and organizations.
On one hand, the new Tunisian state began to privatize and entwine itself in free-trade treaties, increasing industrial production and developing services and tourism. The country was an IMF poster-child, not to mention an engine of talent. On the other hand, Ben Ali’s security apparatus cracked down on any dissidents to the regime.
Torture was an obvious fact (examples including electrocution, waterboarding, gang beatings and rape) cast upon not only Islamists but any who protested against Tunisia’s widening income disparity. While the coast, already developed during French colonisation and the Bourguiba years, reaped the rewards, those in the South and Interior remained unemployed or worked in more intensive and dangerous professions.
Relations with the West only improved with time; Tunisia became a close ally of France and the U.S., who approved of its modernized bureaucracy and its hardline attitude towards political Islam. Support only grew after 9/11 and the emergence of Salafism, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements. Tunisian expatriates became a common sight in Canada, Western Europe or the Gulf States, either descendants of a new middle class or interior workers driven to build a better life. Compared to Algeria (mired in civil war), or any of the more nebulous Arab dictatorships, Tunisia seemed like a good place to be.
The flip side to this economic liberalization was widespread corruption and nepotism. The RCD, which came to dominate political life, was already the main channel through which educated Tunisians passed through to start business or enter public service. The UGTT and other professional unions became lead by Ben Ali stalwarts, though the situation began to change after the 21st century.
At the top of this network was Ben Ali, elected to multiple presidential terms without competition. Whereas Bourguiba had his rhetoric and vanity projects, Ben Ali’s flaw was corruption. With Leila Trabelsi, his second wife, Ben Ali gifted their relatives and other close contacts with control of privatized state corporations. Civic leaders were rewarded with patronage for their cooperation as the Ben Ali family purportedly divested billions of Euros from the country.
While Tunisia was a nominal democracy with opposition parties, they had power only on paper. Ben Ali never faced any serious opposition to his rule, nor was he stopped when he removed any semblance of term limits in 2002. The UGTT had been pacified, and a major crackdown on Ennahda in the early nineties left political Islam without a clear direction. Independent press was nonexistent, and even religious radio was owned by a Ben Ali family member.
To add insult to injury, Ben Ali allowed for a segment of parliament to be reserved for opposition parties while the RCD claimed every constituency. These were the same leftist parties legalized under Bourguiba, along with some liberal ones, and whose leaders openly praised Ben Ali’s rule for further modernizing the country.
The period of political competition and turmoil during the later Bourguiba years, however, created a generation of “secular opposition” who did not cooperate with Ben Ali’s façade while also keeping distance from Islamists. Examples of these figures include lawyers Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Ahmad Néjib Chebbi, communists and organizers Hamma Hammami and Chokri Belaid, and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki.
Many of them were students in the seventies, disenchanted with Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Some looked to liberalism and human rights for the solution, and others to Marxism-Leninism, Baathism and other forbidden pan-Arab thought. Regardless, they were allowed to remain in the country but were frequently detained and tortured when international watchers looked away.
Even if Ben Ali became more accepting of Islam not under state supervision by the new millennium, public expression of the faith was still a subversive act. After 9/11 and the spread of jihadism, Ben Ali had another excuse to rubber-stamp an “anti-terrorism bill” which deprived due process even further.
Far from stopping with terrorists, the regime began persecuting students and activists who learned to spread news of corruption and destitution through the internet. For what it’s worth, jihadism had become a significant factor in the country; as political Islam was suppressed, anger among the Tunisian underclass found violence as a channel.
Thus began the slow fall of Ben Ali’s centralized state. While it tried to cover up terrorist attacks on the southern island of Djerba and in Soliman, a city close to Tunis, the news became known and condemned by all sectors of Tunisian society.
In 2008, with echoes of unrest in 1984, miners relieved from phosphate mines in the southern region of Gafsa rose up to protest unemployment and discrimination. The movement spread across the region and continued for a month, though it received a mixed reaction from opposition figures. Ben Ali’s heavy-handed response—calling in the army to intervene and arrest—changed minds, who now decry state actions.
In a few years’ time, more Tunisians faced the same problem Gafsa’s miners encountered. The financial crisis hit Tunisia as hard as the rest of the world, playing out alongside a rise in world commodity prices. By 2010, GDP per capita was on the decline, worsening an already troubling degree of inequality in the country. Tunisia, with a burgeoning youth population, had no jobs to provide to these newly educated people. At the same time, the UGTT, Islamists and opposition figures were regrouping, as well as other Tunisians who received news of protests in the South.
The rest is history. Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in the south-central but highly undeveloped region of Sidi Bouzid, set himself aflame after state officials seized his business. News of Bouazizi spread across the youth of Sidi Bouzid, and protests spread. By the end of the year, protests have spread to neighbouring Gafsa, Kasserine and Gabes. As the South rose up, so did the agricultural Northwest and Tunis itself.
The revolution by then captured the passion of youth, as well as the older generation of activists, union leaders, lawyers and professionals. General strikes took place across the country, and Ben Ali’s only response was to shuffle state officials and promise policy changes. By this time, protests were even taking place on the coast and in the Northern port of Bizerte, all with the goal of taking down any traces of the RCD.
On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali ordered new legislative elections and a state of emergency. While police have fought off protesters in Tunis, military generals refused to follow Ben Ali’s instructions and sided in support of revolution. With the intention of protecting himself, Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia the same day. He was lucky to not have been arrested the way others in his family were; he has yet to return.
After the Revolution
This is as good a time as ever to realize Ben Ali’s ouster is not enough. Though the dictators are gone, the state they have built remains; one which is overly centralized, persecutory, dominated by cronyism, unresponsive to concerns outside those of an aged elite, and whose violence has fueled a generation of Islamist radicals. The Revolution’s main phase was not over until the RCD was expelled from the state, and protests continued unabated.
Ben Ali’s last Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, was number three in the party and a noted economist. Noting the power vacuum, he declared himself as acting president on television. This lasted for about three days before Fouad Mebazaa, Parliamentary speaker and loyal RCD official, was constitutionally invested as acting president.
Ghannouchi was reappointed and formed a “government of national unity,” comprising members of the UGTT and major opposition figures (like Ben Jaafar and Néjib Chebbi). The problem: most of these new ministers refused to serve in the same cabinet with RCD stalwarts. With military support, civil society and protesters now engaged in a general strike that will not stop until a RCD ministry is removed.
The strike continued for a month, despite a government reshuffle by Ghannouchi that replaced most RCD officials. Any plans for a single transition government leading the country to new elections became quite unlikely; protesters demanded Ghannouchi’s resignation, the suspension of parliament and immediate investigation into crimes perpetrated by the Ben Ali state. The West, by this time, must have also grown worried; though not everyone was as bad as French politicians in voicing support for the old regime, America risked losing an ally and Italy did not want Tunisian refugees swarming to its shores.
Finally, on February 17, 2011, Ghannouchi resigned and was replaced by Béji Caid Essebsi, a former old regime official (but we’ll get to more about him later). He composed a government of technocrats, not all of which was friendly to an insider like Essebsi, but which was enough to keep the state functioning until elections to a “Constituent Assembly” tasked with rewriting the national constitution. Delays and errors in voter registration led to a late election date of October 23.
The next eight months were a time for social change. Since the press in Tunisia had an anemic presence, Tunisians plugged into the internet, social networks, and the radio. Bloggers and reporters in the country, already a presence before the Revolution, were now free to spread the news about life throughout the country, as well as engage in debate.
The situation had its absurdities: Ben Ali’s state of emergency was retained throughout, and stayed until after the elections this year. The wave of liberalisation was also met with police brutality, and in parts of the interior continued unabated from Ben Ali’s time.
With the Revolution also came something close to freedom of religion. For the first time in many years, Tunisians can wear the hijab in public or engage in prayer without fear of persecution. Add this to an already latent Islamic radicalism, and religious diversity exploded. The division is as much a regional and class one as it is religious: westernized middle classes, French-speaking and educated, would glimpse in public or hear of poor Tunisians who grew their beards and dressed themselves in robes.
This first wave engaged much debate, and from a year onwards Islamists used their freedom to decry blasphemy or sinfulness. It would be fair to describe it as a battle between Islamists and secular forces in the following way: both sides want freedom of expression for their ideas, but find a decent portion of the other side’s ideas intolerable and necessarily forbidden.
The cultural debate, nonetheless, never last as long as foreigners would think they do. Tunisia’s biggest concerns remain chronic unemployment and unequal development. Citizens of Gabes in the South may be religiously conservative, but they also want a solution to a pollution crisis that stemmed from their petrochemicals sector. The revolution heralded instability and a steep fall in tourism, which made a genuine economic recovery even more unlikely. With time, the discourse transitioned to more substantive issues.
As parties were legalized in preparation for elections, the opposition figures from the eighties returned. Back were Ghannouchi, Marzouki and the Ennahda leadership, sharing the spotlight with secular figures. By this time, one would notice that they are all quite old, ranging from the seventies to the late fourties (as is the case for some human rights activists). This is a natural consequence of exile and detainment for twenty years, followed by the one party which absorbed young talent—the RCD—declared as illegal. There are signs of division between the political class and the youth who started the Revolution.
Elections did take place on October, and their results have been covered on this blog already. To summarize, Ennahda used its seven months between legalisation and the election well; it was best suited to reconstruct ties in the South or elsewhere, and build a truly national organization that turned out the vote.
Ennahda alone won 89 seats, or more than two-fifths of the Assembly. Behind them were the Congress for the Republic, led by Moncef Marzouki and composed of various regional activists, running on a platform of human rights, liberalism and a record untainted by regime collaboration. Then there was the Popular Petition, led by expatriate press magnate Hachmi Hamdi, whose lavish welfare guarantees yielded him control of the interior and of his native Sidi Bouzid. Then there is Ben Jaafar’s Forum for Liberties (Ettakatol), Néjib Chebbi’s Progressive Democratic Party, and other non-Islamist parties with variation in participation in Ben Ali’s sham democracy.
Ghannouchi is known to be a moderate in his own party, favouring coalition-building with non-Islamist forces and appearing as compromising as is necessary. With this idea in place, Ennahda formed a coalition government with CPR and Ettakatol in a power-sharing arrangement, known as the “Troika”. CPR’s leader, Moncef Marzouki, was appointed interim president, and Ettakatol’s Ben Jaafar presided over the Assembly. This caused rebuke from supporters of the secular parties, but an Islamist government was formed with Hamadi Jebali, Ghannouchi’s right-hand man, as Prime Minister.
The government was tasked to improve Tunisians’ livelihoods while the Assembly was intended to draft a constitution. On both tasks, it is only fair to say both institutions did poorly. The Assembly was composed of such a heterogeneous group of individuals—not to mention parties united perhaps only by a common occupation in the work opposing Ben Ali’s regime—that consensus was highly unlikely.
Ennahda is a prime example; composed of members of parliament from North and South, some conciliatory and others unmovable in their support for an Islamic legal code (“Sharia”), the party would consider multiple constitutional articles, have their deliberations leaked, face controversy and have to withdraw.
Three ideas that come to mind are the decision to exclude any mention of Sharia in the constitution, a draft article that defined women’s role as “in the family,” and whether to implement a parliamentary or presidential system. More extreme examples are the CPR and Popular Petition, which totally imploded as the Assembly rolled on.
On the government’s performance, the Troika was not remotely close to ensuring sustained, equitable growth. The government itself is not entirely to blame; Tunisia’s internal consumption is already skewed, and demand from Europe that should drive growth vanished with the Eurozone crisis.
What the government faces looks like a repeat of the eighties; the country faces a current account deficit, falling foreign investment, a lacking rebound in tourism and a widening budget deficit (rumoured to be about 8% of GDP). The country looks on track to be as sclerotic as Egypt—and not to mention inflation has never stopped outpacing wages. It could be blamed, however, for a lack of authority; there have not been enough orders from Tunis to resolve what those in the South and the Interior have protested over for decades.
It took late 2012, though, for the stakes to be raised and the political field set up for what we see today. First, it was by this time that Essebsi—the regime stalwart and interim Prime Minister—stepped back into politics, and properly organized his party, Nidaa Tounes or the Call for Tunisia. Second, the recognized jihadist threat that has existed for the past decade had began to act.
There was Ansar al-Charia, a public organization responsible for a media campaign calling for Islamic rule. There were radicalized mosques across the country, left unregulated by the state. Then there were the attacks; on the American embassy in September and against Nidaa Tounes or other regime officials.
The biggest casualty was in February 2013, when Chokri Belaid—a lawyer, fierce secularist and leftist, earlier mentioned—was shot in front of his house. This assassination lead to the greatest anti-government protests since 2011, as the spectre of Islamism threatening national security—a tactic used by the old regime for so many decades—lurched into view. The UGTT, a much more organized force since the Revolution, called for a national general strike as a sign of resistance.
Jebali quickly announced his resignation and proposed another government of technocrats that will ease the transition between new elections, but now he faced a schism within the party over the extent of conceding to regime officials. After some deliberation, Jebali did resign and was instead replaced by Ali Laareydh, another prominent moderate in the party.
The lines were drawn. With economic development, Islam and national identity and national security on the line, Tunisia’s politics coalesced into two sides. On one side was the “Troika,” mostly Ennahda but also what remained of the CPR and Ettakatol. On the other side were the UGTT, the disaffected middle class and suddenly Essebsi, whose record as administrator stood him out among the rest of the accepted political class. With one of their leaders dead, the Tunisian far-left also entered the fray. Their spokesperson, Hamma Hammami, became the most stridently anti-Islamist political figure and captured hearts with it.
A second assassination took place in July 2013, when Mohamed Brahmi—a communist from Sidi Bouzid—was shot in suburban Tunis. Right after, the Tunisian military began a bloody engagement with terrorist camps in the Chaambi Mountains, to the west of Tunisia. This time, the Troika’s opposition was prepared for a sustained campaign.
Those sympathetic to the cause, from youth to old, occupied grounds in front of the Assembly in Bardo and called for the resignation of the Ennahda government. Essebsi also claimed the Constituent Assembly had outlasted its mandate, and therefore had to be abolished. A spade of assemblypeople withdrew their seats to catch the wave. The message: as we are witness to the terrorism that has taken over our country, we no longer have any confidence in the Troika or the Assembly’s incompetence.
Coming at a dark time in Arab Spring nations—a counter-coup in Egypt, civil war in Syria and civil unrest elsewhere—Tunisians feared the democratic transition’s collapse and total chaos. Both sides have turned to accusing the other of conspiracy, violence and creating havoc for political gain. The Islamists were supposedly in cahoots with armed terrorist groups and friendly with them. The opposition was supposedly controlled by RCD operatives readying for a counter-coup.
With so much to lose, the UGTT partnered with the employer’s union, the National Bar Association and the Tunisian Human Rights League to form a quartet of mediators. Representatives from the Troika and its opposition, now structured under a “National Salvation Front,” would engage in dialogue with the goal of agreeing on an interim government and ratification of a constitution.
The dialogue began in October and was rocky from the start. The parties met rarely and with great tension, and close to the end of the year it seemed on the verge of collapse. Yet, by January 2014, the parties came to a miraculous compromise, where Mehdi Jomaa, an Ennahda leader, will assume the Prime Ministership over a technocratic cabinet.
Later that month, the Assembly nearly unanimously ratified a proposed constitution, which established a semi-presidential system and has a comprehensive list of rights: to life and dignity, from torture, to free access of information, to work and unionize, to equality between sexes and for children, and so forth. It became one of the world’s most progressive—and with no mention of Sharia.
Since then, the Jomaa government has focused on national security, working in collaboration with the army. The threat of jihadism dominates the news, particularly as the situation deteriorated in Syria (i.e. the ISIS problem). Tunisia is now known for sending the greatest number of fighters to the Islamic State, never mind its internal strife. The economic situation is stable but still on the downside, though Jomaa’s cabinet has and cannot enact major domestic policy.
The state of emergency remains in effect: Tunisia’s police, unreformed since the revolution, has free rein to persecute and arrest in the name of law of order. The old regime’s power players continue to test Ennahda and likewise, seeing which side would blink first. It is under this context that the second Tunisian political campaign since independence took place.
Parliamentary — The Parties
During the Constituent Assembly’s tenure, a variety of state models were debated. Ennahda began with support for a parliamentary system, where the executive is elected by Parliament and will be dismissed if the chamber loses confidence in it. On the other end were calls for “separation of powers,” or a return to Tunisia’s former presidential model. A president would be elected and have a fixed mandate, but there would be a legislative body and an independent judiciary.
In extreme cases, both models would foster authoritarianism. An executive with a parliamentary majority and total control of his caucus possesses control over most administrative responsibilities. A presidential system is prone to the president subverting the Constitution or locked in conflict with it (like the US). The track record, at least, bodes worse for the presidential system, creators of dictatorships in Latin America and South America.
The consensual model mimics the French model, a strange creation encoded in the midst of political crisis and Marshal Charles de Gaulle’s return as national saviour. The Constitution provides many powers to the president: a fixed mandate, control of internal security, foreign affairs and defense, and abilities to declare a state of emergency, appoint the judiciary and dissolve the legislative body.
What it denies is exclusive control over government formation; the President appoints a Prime Minister, who must maintain the confidence of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Nothing stops the Assembly from only accepting a Prime Minister from the President’s rival party, and the intention is for “cohabitation” to occur. The Assembly also has the power of impeachment, activated if two-thirds of the chamber agrees the President has violated the Constitution.
The bottom line is that elections to the Assembly have consequences, and the President should achieve some consensus outside of his party in order to form government. But the President remains the country’s supreme political figure, a result Tunisia’s opposition but personalist parties want and Ennahda opposes. The worst case is that the President becomes as dominating as Bourguiba, who can shuffle his cabinet now and then to buy off support in the Assembly: how much different would that be from the seventies?
HARAKAT ENNAHDA (THE RENAISSANCE MOVEMENT) — Whether in or out of power, no party incites as much passion and speculation as Ennahda (excluding the RCD here) Formed as the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981, the party was the idea of two educated professionals: Rashid Ghannouchi, a philosophy professor, and Abdelfettah Mourou, a lawyer turned religious mystic. Their party was the closest thing Tunisia had to political Islam since the days of Ben Youssef in the fifties, and Ghannouchi held Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as an inspiration.
Subject to intense persecution under the Bourguiba regime, when its leaders were captured and almost condemned to death, its leaders were released by Ben Ali as he seized power. Once candidates associated with Ennahda scored above expectations in 1989 elections, however, Ben Ali lead another crackdown that incapacitated the movement for the next two decades. After the revolution, Ghannouchi and other founding members returned and rebuilt the party’s foundation, shocking some observers with its score in the National Constituent Assembly elections.
Ennahda, at its heart, is a big-tent party—it is devoted to political Islam, but this allows for a wide range of opinions. Unlike other variants of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda has an organizational structure which is “operationally democratic”. Party decisions are made by a Shura Council of 24 members, composed of party elders and even a few young leaders.
More strikingly, the party does not allow itself to be dominated by one personality. It is quite possibly the most “parliamentary” of Tunisia’s parties, with a clear structure from top to local branches, public debate between factions and caucus organization.
Under Ghannouchi’s leadership, the party has tried its hardest to play by the rules of the game. It has a large share of female lawmakers (though near-zero leaders) and promised to work in coalition with secular parties, leading the “Troika” government from 2011 to 2014. It has launched an offensive against jihadist and radical forces, though without much success.
After a troubled administration and protests against its rule, Ennahda made a decisive shift when it compromised with opposition forces in a national dialogue. In a blow to the party’s right, Ennahda has conceded on Sharia law in the Constitution, a full parliamentary system and ceded Ministry control to technocrats representative of the old regime.
For the party’s supporters—scattered throughout the South, near the ancient city of Kairouan, or among the lower classes in Northern cities—Ennahda is a movement that defends their values from decades of oppression. It is hard to overstate how well-established Ennahda is in the South, seeing as most of its leaders are from there, it is in contact with prominent Southern leaders and that central government in Tunis has widely ignored their problems.
For the party’s opponents, including national media and the coastal middle class who benefitted under the old regime, Ennahda is a cultish group with unknown origins and intentions. Since most of its leaders were in exile or tortured, they lack government experience and showed this during the Troika government. Some step further and accuse them of conspiring to assassinate anti-Islamists. Unfortunately for the party, it has had isolated incidents where party members have sieged political enemies (though the number of Ennahda regional offices burnt down during the Troika years is greater).
In terms of actual policy, Ennahda is not too distinct from the Tunisian consensus. It is economically centrist, and its greater objective is to roll back Tunisia’s current form of centralist nationalism for a more Islamic and more diffuse state. In the meantime, the party needs to work out how they can survive in the long-term without abandoning the principles that gather it support among marginalized groups.
A slightly cheesy open-air Ennahda rally
NIDAA TOUNES (CALL FOR TUNISIA) — Formed in 2012 by former Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes has enjoyed an astonishing rise in public visibility. Through a series of strategic maneuvers, the party has become the principal opposition party to Ennahda, defining itself and pulling itself together through their opposition to political Islam.
The focus of the party is on Essebsi, who has decades of experience as a minister under Bourguiba and untainted by the drama that has riddled the Assembly and the younger political class; he makes grand speeches, make appearances on national TV and gives interviews to the foreign press.
That is not to say the party has not expanded, but that the focus is necessarily more “top-down” than other established ones. Conflicts exist between regional leaders and Essebsi over “parachuted” candidates, like a controversy over Essebsi picking his son to lead the list in the toss-up Tunis 1 constituency.
The party’s executive council is primarily from the developed coast, uniting former ministers, trade unionists and other leaders from established civil society (contrasted to, say, religious communities or Ennahda’s own networks). Leaders include Taieb Baccouche (secretary-general of the UGTT during the turbulent eighties), Mohamed Ennaceur (minister under Bourguiba’s liberal period), Mohsen Marzouk (international human rights lawyer), and Slim Chaker (economic bureaucrat under Ben Ali).
But—if Nidaa can accuse Ennahda of fostering terror—so can Islamists accuse Nidaa of being a safe house for discredited RCD officials post-revolution. There is some truth to this, moreso in southern Tunisia than anywhere else (and where some have died for their involvement). As far as parliamentary candidates go, however, Nidaa has not made any obvious mistakes.
Their list are lead by bureaucrats or lawyers, human rights activists (one or two defecting from the CPR), and businessmen (like Moncef Sellami, football team owner). Ideologically, these party members are nationalists, with a portion of unionists and a portion of leftists. It remains fair to say that the party has assembled a group of leaders who have done well under the old regime.
As another big tent party united by a cause—or an opposition—Nidaa’s survival is even more surprising. Part of its success must be due to Essebsi realizing this, and making sure that Nidaa leads any secular opposition against Ennahda. This was successful, as Essebsi formed the Union for Tunisia in the wake of Belaid’s assassination in February 2013. It became Nidaa who spoke for the movement, Nidaa who commented on anger against the Troika and Nidaa who approved of a compromise with Ennahda over the transition to a new constitution.
By summer 2014, Nidaa also had enough candidates and connections to make it on its own, spurning the Union altogether. In a way, the party chewed up those on the frontlines against Ben Ali’s regime and used them to its advantage.
Politically, Nidaa is also economically centrist and would like to reform the economy. Their vision of the state is unique—Essebsi spoke gravely about the collapse of national security in the country and the necessity of a strong state to support safety. Nidaa’s state is still the one envisioned by Bourguiba: nationalist, secular and rid of the reactionary parts of Islam. They wear this vision without shame, and has rode on a wave of nostalgia for the old regime.
A CGI Bourguiba head starting off a Nidaa rally
JABHA EL-SHA’ABIYA (POPULAR FRONT) — The Popular Front is not a party as it is a coalition of twelve leftists groups, running on joint regional lists for the elections. Members of these parties were caught in a dilemma; having failed to gain representation running separate lists in 2011, they witnessed the rise and fall of Ennahda and the resurgence of old regime forces, the same who have persecuted them for leftist seditious ideology. The best option was to unite.
The Popular Front’s ideology is not left in the same way that Nidaa or the UGTT is left—its component parties officially subscribe either to Marxist-Leninism or Arab nationalism. Major parties in the Popular Front are the Worker’s Party (led by Hamma Hammami, formerly the Workers’ Communist Party in Tunisia), a Marxist outfit; the Unified Democratic Patriots’ Party, the pan-Arab and anti-Zionist party of the assassinated Chokri Belaid; and the very straightforwardly titled Ba’ath Movement.
Ba’athism, Marxism and other far-left ideologies were viewed with equal suspicion in Bourguiba’s Tunisia, who viewed it as threats to Tunisia’s sovereignty. Under Ben Ali, many of these parties had to go underground, militant as they were. In the latter days of Ben Ali’s regime, they were also hard to categorize among Tunisia’s opposition; they stood out for their support of workers’ strikes in Gafsa’s phosphate mines, isolated from the rest of civil society, and is generally better received in the interior than on the coast.
After the deaths of two leaders (Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi), the Popular Front was thrown into the spotlight as the vanguard of the anti-Islamist movement. It is around this time that the coalition focused their platform on the denunciation of Ennahda, seeing the assassinations as a declaration of war. More critically, party leaders were willing to unite forces with Nidaa Tounes—the old regime!—in negotiations with the Troika, even if their participation was fleeting.
Coming into the election, members of the Popular Front continue to call for immediate action for law and order, suppressing political Islam, and a redistribution of wealth from the coast to the interior. Whereas the alliance takes a distinct position on free trade and collaboration with European institutions, in the media their anti-Islamist policy blends together with Nidaa’s. While Hammami, the coalition’s spokesperson and most prominent media figure, refuse any coalition with Nidaa, he can flip-flop in his opposition to Essebsi’s party. This has led to some tension.
AL MOTTAMAR MIN ‘AJLI AL-JUMHURIYYA (CONGRESS FOR THE REPUBLIC) — A party found by human rights lawyer Moncef Marzouki in 2001, the CPR is a wide coalition of activists from all corners of the country. Based off of its leader’s popularity, the party had a uniform vote distribution across the country and scored 29 seats from 29 constituencies. Its platform is generally leftist, calling for greater rights for all Tunisian citizens and a third-world foreign policy. More interestingly, of all the secular opposition it is the most welcoming to southern Tunisians. This is not due only to Marzouki’s Southern roots, but because his confidants also include prominent Southern figures.
The CPR had collapsed in the polls following 2013, and was not expected to repeat its electoral success. It is worth mentioning as a case study of a Tunisian political self-implosion. It has probably the greatest degree of North-South parity outside of Ennahda, while it is a personalist party held together by Marzouki’s success, similar to Nidaa Tounes. Once Marzouki was elected interim president and left party leadership, the CPR split up over its ideological divisions and lack of a coherent agenda.
After Marzouki’s departure, founding member Abderrayouf Ayadi was appointed secretary-general after delays, only to be stripped of his duties five months later after mocking Bourguiba on television and alienating most of his party. He took five Assembly members with him. Liberal Mohamed Abbou was named to replace him, but he quit as well and took three Assembly members with him after CPR ministers refused to quit after the Belaid assassination. A Marzouki confidant, Imed Daimi, then led the party, and could not stop members moving to Ettakatol, Nidaa Tounes or sitting as independents.
By the Assembly’s end, the CPR had 12 of its 29 elected members.
AL ITTIHAAD AL-WATANI AL-HOUR (FREE PATRIOTIC UNION) — The “UPL” is the brainchild of Slim Riahi, a Tunisian businessman who made a fortune dealing with Libyan oil (more on him later). Having tried to lead his party to victory upon return in 2011 and failed, Riahi waited a few more years to prepare a better campaign. He has bought Club Africain—one of Tunisia’s most popular football teams—and fused his party with other small liberal outfits in a search for staffers.
Riahi is called the Berlusconi of Tunisia for good reason (except he is not remotely as successful). His campaign simply involves pouring much of his own money into publicity; up to 5 million dinars (about 2 million Euros) was spent plastering his name across the country or in media. He has sucked up as much media time as he can imagine doing philanthropic acts, like paying for protesters’ medical bills. The UPL has also been noted for donating food to Tunisians, for whatever reasons one can imagine.
The ISIE can enforce campaign regulations this time, and Riahi’s massive 2011 publicity campaign would now be considered illegal. He seems to have played by the rules, focusing on canvassing on the ground in Tunis and environs. There are a few public rallies, but nothing as lavish as Essebsi’s.
What are the party’s policies? None of it is quite clear, absent a need for cleaner and more representative government. It pays lip service to the big issues, promising to eradicate terrorism and create exactly 422000 jobs. It does not appear to support welfare policies as lavish as another populist party who scored big in the 2011 election. The party also seems to prefer Nidaa over Ennahda, as made evident by Riahi’s statements throughout this campaign.
AFEK TOUNES (TUNISIAN ASPIRATION) — Afek is a conspicuously young party with a market liberal platform. Its leader, Yassine Brahim, works in finance and is 48 years old, making him one of the youngest party leaders. While it is distinct from Nidaa, the party has drifted closer to it over time; indeed, Afek’s leaders represent a display of young talent facilitated by the old regime’s liberalization. Their biggest catch has to be getting Hafedh Zouari, head of the Zouari industrial conglomerate, to lead one of their lists.
Some of its policies are rather specific: there are calls for increasing sports investment, higher education vouchers and a two-tiered public health care system. It remains frustratingly vague on the political Islam issue, but its cooperation with Nidaa and on-the-record opposition to the Troika says more than anything. The party markets itself to a coastal, white-collar base, and supporters may see more dynamism in Afek compared to other parties.
When the party was founded, there were accusations that its members had ties to the RCD, made by lawyers up to President Marzouki. These rumours no longer hold much sway, and Brahim is a popular media figure. The party seems to have a better grasp of social media advertising than most and even made a viral music video.
AL-JOUMHOURI (REPUBLICAN PARTY) — Joumhouri’s roots began in the Ben Ali era as the Progress Democratic Party (PDP), a socially liberal party led by Ahmed Néjib Chebbi. Having started out in politics as a skeptic of Bourguiba, Chebbi may have softened his views but retained harsh criticism of the old regime. Of the parties opposing Ben Ali but still not outlawed, the PDP was the most radical.
The PDP only gained about 4% of the vote in 2011’s election, and garnered 16 seats due to the highest averages electoral system. Though it was well funded and advertised substantially, it did not score substantially outside of the North and metro Tunis. Following the results, the PDP became the largest secular opposition to Ennahda; it tasked itself with the role of leading a united opposition to the Troika.
Al Joumhouri began as a merger between the PDP, Afek Tounes and other centrist figures. A wing of the PDP, led by eight assemblypeople not tied to Chebbi, already split in dissent. Unfortunately for the new party, the merger took place in April 2012, the same time that Essebsi first revealed his vision for Nidaa Tounes. What Chebbi admitted as his greatest strategic error was signing up with Nidaa Tounes to form the Union for Tunisia, an electoral alliance lead by Nidaa instead.
With Nidaa and Essebsi dominating the airwaves, Joumhouri began to fracture; Afek left the party in 2013 to pursue its own list. Nidaa and the Popular Front worked to keep up the opposition to the Troika, and Joumhouri’s idea of a national dialogue mediated by the UGTT did take place, but only after the party had left the spotlight. Nidaa and Ennahda then compromised, a decision Joumhouri protested as non-consensual. The party did vote for the new Constitution, but later left the Union for Tunisia as Nidaa clearly outgrew the vehicle.
A party of the middle class who wanted to stay above the Nidaa-Ennahda duel, Joumhouri has collapsed in the polls to about the CPR’s level. One could say the party wanted to pursue a third way to a new Tunisia, one that does not pay lip service to Islamists or the old regime, and perhaps relied instead on international assistance and civil society. It is their tragedy that they did not see how restless people were at political impasse, the little patience they devoted to the project and how hard Islamist-versus-nationalist rhetoric spurned by the old regime is to go away.
OTHERS — Minor parties at the time of the election include:
- Ettakatol, the “Democratic Forum for Liberties” founded by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, legal opposition figure under Ben Ali. Particularly strong in metro Tunis in 2011, the party committed electoral suicide by cooperating with Ennahda for three turbulent years. The party has splintered and is destined for 2-3% of the vote.
- The Union for Tunisia, or the remnants of it. After Nidaa and Joumhouri pulled out, its only major member is the Social and Democratic Path, an alliance centred around the Ettajid Movement, the reformed edition of the Tunisian Communist Party. Totally eclipsed by Nidaa.
- The Current of Love, formerly the Popular Petition. A party glued together by press magnate Hechmi Hamdi, claiming voters across the nation and dominating in Sidi Bouzid. Hamdi’s wild welfare state plans never came through, and 19 of its 26 Assemblypeople left for other parties.
- The National Initiative (Al Moubadara) of Kamel Morjane, foreign minister under Ben Ali. Explicitly carrying the RCD’s banner, the party is made up of former regime officials. Scored well in 2011 lacking other channels for nostalgia, but now is eclipsed by Nidaa.
- People’s Movement, a Nasserist party started by assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi. Before Brahmi left to join the Popular Front, he claimed the party had been infiltrated by Islamists.
- Party of the Tunisian People’s Voice, a front cobbled by TV network owner and Ben Ali associate Larbi Nasra for his political career (more on him later).
- Movement of Social Democrats, legalised as a liberal alternative during the Bourguiba years and played along as loyal opposition during the Ben Ali years.
- Various splinters of the PDP, the CPR and of the Popular Petition (ex-PDP Democratic Alliance, ex-CPR Democratic Current, quasi-Islamist Wafa movement, regionalist Al Amen). There are also region-specific lists, which will be explored in the results.
Parliamentary — Results and Analysis
As earlier mentioned, Tunisia’s elections follow a proportional representation system with regional constituencies. Three especially populous governorates—Tunis, Nabeul and Sfax—are split into halves for demographic coherence and possibly a smaller range of constituency sizes. As it is, constituency sizes range from electing only one candidate (the expatriate constituency of Germany) to ten (coastal Sousse and Ben Arous, which covers Tunis’s southern suburbs).
In the interests of parity, Tunisian parties by law have to have an equal number of men and women women across their electoral lists. This does not change the reality that there are very few female politicians or businesswomen, and party leadership is predominantly male. Ennahda has a fair distribution of women near the top of their lists to fend off accusations, and Nidaa did similarly. It still remains that Nidaa only had one female list leader, who replaced Essebsi’s son in Tunis after a party revolt. This election produced a chamber that is 31% female, a rate higher than many Western democracies.
Tunisia also uses a largest remainder system for apportionment (or the Hare method). The idea is to create a quota for seats in a constituency, a fraction of all votes cast. Parties’ votes, then, are converted into units of quotas. Parties first receive a number of seats equal to the highest whole number lower than their quota units, then any seats left over are given to parties with the highest remainder of quota units (Wikipedia has a good example).
There are two quirks of this system relevant for these elections. First, largest remainder suffers from the Alabama Paradox: if parties receive the same percentage of the vote across constituencies, but with some larger ones, the large parties can crowd out seats from small parties if the seat increase is not great enough. Second, the system allows tiny parties to still gain a seat if there are only one or two major parties. This is not the case with other PR systems.
As an illustration, refer to this article that computes the 2011 election results and find that Ennahda would have achieved a supermajority under other popular PR systems. In that same election, it also turned out that parties who had more uniform distribution of votes (like the CPR) did much better than ones with skewed voter bases.
How is it relevant in 2014? Though the political debate has been dominated by Ennahda and Nidaa, there is a wide range of people who despise Islamist incompetence and fear the old regime. They can either abstain or head to one of dozens of parties with regional influence. The result is a fractured parliament and a group of kingmaker parties with many more seats than their vote counts suggest. But the results first:
RESULTS: PERCENTAGE/SEAT COUNT (RELATIVE TO DISSOLUTION OF ANC)
Nidaa Tounes 37.56% winning 86 seats (+82)
Ennahda 27.79% winning 69 seats (-16)
Free Patriotic Union 4.13% winning 16 seats (+14)
Popular Front 3.64% winning 15 seats (+9)
Afek Tounes 3.02% winning 8 seats (+4)
CPR 2.14% winning 4 seats (-8)
Democratic Current 1.93% winning 3 seats (0)
People’s Movement 1.34% winning 3 seats (+1)
National Destourian Initiative 1.32% winning 3 seats (0)
Current of Love 1.20% winning 2 seats (-5)
Al Joumhouri 1.47% winning 1 seat (-6)
Democratic Alliance 1.27% winning 1 seat (-9)
Union for Tunisia 0.82% winning 0 seats (-11)
Ettakatol 0.72% winning 0 seats (-12)
Wafa Movement 0.7% winning 0 seats (-7)
Party of the Tunisian People’s Voice 0.23% winning 0 seats (-6)
Others/Independents winning 6 seats (-30)
Total votes cast: 3579257 (Turnout 68.4%)
As the polls predicted, Nidaa triumphed over Ennahda and held a hefty lead in seats. It was not as much of a massacre for Ennahda as the polls suggested—but only slightly, as they performed about 4-6% better than surveyed before polls were forbidden after the summer. With a massive number of undecided voters and selection bias toward the coast, the polls were not very indicative anyways; the actual results show a much wider field outside of Nidaa and Ennahda, with around 35% of voters choosing different parties.
Nonetheless, there is no credible third party yet in Tunisia politics so long as national security and Islamism are the biggest issues. The smaller parties are either regional or are empty hulls of a political class elected in 2011 and swept out in 2014. The biggest loser, far more than Ennahda, is the secular opposition; absent the far-left, they were used by Nidaa and replaced. The final blow was when Essebsi announced on October 20 his view on tactical voting: any vote wasted on non-Nidaa parties is a vote for Ennahda.
The CPR, Ettakatol, PDP and the Union for Tunisia parties had 70 seats between them in 2011. They now have nine.
ISIE, Tunisia’s independent elections agency (whose separation from the Interior Ministry, still full of Ben Ali’s influence, was an early issue), provides legislative results for each constituency. Looking at them gives some ideas about Tunisian political demography.
Ennahda’s defeat, if expected, is still a hard pill to swallow. It may even be so for its opponents, who expected more of a fight. Their vote spread in this election shows a more natural result: their dominance in the South, bases in Tunis and Sfax and middling results elsewhere. The Sfax region, to the middle-right, is right outside of the Sahel and into the desert; Sfax itself is Tunisia’s third-largest city, with a strong industrial base. Similar climate holds for Kairouan governorate to Sfax’s north, whose capital is home to the Kairouan Mosque and has some variation in religious devotion. Tunis I, the western constituency of Tunis governorate, covers most of the old town and the industrial slums to its West and South; Ennahda has done well here since the eighties.
Though much talk is spilt about Ennahda’s dominance in the South, it looked quite less than dominant this election. The party has an iron grip on Gabes and Medenine by the coast, from where most of its leadership was raised and identify. It dominates in Tataouine, the vast expanse of desert also home to Tunisia’s Berber population; it explains trends that, in Bourguiba’s homogeneously Arab Tunisia, Berbers don’t totally exist.
Things change in the other two traditionally Southern governorates. In Kebili, Ennahda received only about 40% of the vote; Nidaa did not sop up the rest, either. At 16% each were CPR’s list (due to Marzouki’s roots in the region, the party having scored almost 30% in 2011), and the People’s Movement list (headed by party leader Zouheir Meghzaoui). In Tozeur, Ennahda got only 27%, the rest of the vote going to fractured secular parties and the list of Abderrazek Chraiet, mayor of Tozeur City and a regional hero after leading the governorate into a tourism destination.
Looking at a map of the percentage of votes Ennahda lost from 2011 to 2014, even accounting for a lower turnout due to disillusionment, we see regional variation. Ennahda’s vote held on well in Gabes, Medenine and Tataouine, less so in Sfax and dismally everywhere to those regions’ North (especially in Tunis I!) Vote stability in Sidi Bouzid is an illusion, as Hamdi’s party in 2011 so dominated the governorate that Ennahda had little to lose.
When thinking about where those votes would go, it’s not unlikely that Ennahda-to-Nidaa voters exist; lower-income people who are in economic crisis and want strong leadership should exist in considerable amounts. The siphoning is also regional; Hammami’s Popular Front could have taken Ennahda voters in the interior, Nidaa on the coast and Riahi’s UPL in Tunis’s western, poorer suburbs and projects.
Nidaa did well throughout the coast, from the northernmost governorate of Bizerte to Mahdia, just north of Sfax Governorate. The coast is really divided into two: Sousse, Monastir and Mahdia make up the Sahel, a temperate area that is Bourguiba’s birthplace and home to his most lavish developments. Despite a fair showing by Ennahda here in 2011, Nidaa got the swing it wanted with a leader as evocative of Bourguiba as Essebsi. Monastir, Bourguiba’s “governorate of birth,” has the country’s highest Nidaa vote percentage.
The Northern portion, with the Cap-Bon peninsula, greater Tunis and Bizerte, is home to the Tunisian elite, the nationalist movement and of tourism and industry. Voters here have seen the Troika’s inability to revive the economy, as well as tune in to media reports on terrorism and political crisis. Tunis II, a swath of whitewashed suburb and private villas, is a Nidaa stronghold. Even in greater Tunis’s poorer suburbs and the port of Bizerte will you see swing voters to Essebsi, hoping the state will intervene to provide a better life.
One distinctive Tunisian region very few have mentioned is the Northwest, a cluster of four regions. The area is mostly agricultural and quite poor, and though the old regime did little for them the Troika did even less. Closer to the mountains, though, and you start seeing terrorist cells; the Northwest has been a hotbed of terrorist fear in the past year, and national security is a paramount issue. Ennahda paid dearly for their policies, gaining five of 26 seats in this area. Nidaa gained eleven.
Though it was not enough to score additional seats, the Popular Front also did well in this region. As is expected of far-left parties these days, the Front did not do very well among the poor in urban areas. They notched fifteen seats due to an even distribution of votes, coalescing youth and interior Tunisians who have never reaped liberalization’s benefits. Its best score is in Siliana, one of Tunisia’s breadbaskets and more importantly coalition leader Hammami’s birthplace. Other highlights include Nabeul (the governorate covering the Cap-Bon peninsula), Tunis’s southern suburbs in Ben Arous, Sidi Bouzid (from the Brahmi sympathy vote) and the miners of Gafsa.
Afek’s vote concentration is almost a mirror image of the Popular Front’s; it has focused exclusively on the rich coast, not even submitting lists for two Southern governorates. It was a serious force in Sousse (where leader Brahim ran), in Mahdia (magnate Zouari’s list) and Ariana (spokesperson Riadh Mouakar’s list). Sympathy among expatriates in Paris and the West was not enough to take a seat.
The real shocker was the UPL: Riahi played the long game and it worked. Outside the deep South, the Sahel, inner Tunis and Sfax, the party scored about 5% everywhere and became the third-largest party. It even gained a seat in Medenine to the far Southwest, as well as scoring big in Tunis’s western suburbs. It is there that Riahi’s football management and publicity paid off most handsomely.
ISIE had a better control of the campaign this time, restricting advertisements and offering public speech times, but the perpetual campaign is uncontrollable. Riahi also has to thank Tunisia’s political consolidation, which allows his party to place a distant third—but third nonetheless—in many constituencies and be eligible for remainder seats.
Not enough have been said about what I consider to be Tunisia’s real interior: Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa. Each governorate has a government uprising to their name, and has not been made much better for it. Nowhere satisfied with parties from the centre, the results in the three governorates are very messy.
Nidaa and Ennahda both got around a quarter of the vote in each governorate, the latter getting its worst score in the interior in Kasserine and Nidaa spurned in Gafsa. They shared 13 of 23 seats between them, thanks to largest remainder wizardry. About a quarter of the votes in each governorate went to purely regional candidates. Hence the spectacle in Sidi Bouzid where the seats were split six ways; and in Gafsa, where 2008 protest leader Adnen Hajji won a seat alongside a candidate from RCD clearinghouse The Initiative.
The expatriate vote, collected from consulates worldwide, is not too indicative. The only trick in the constituency definitions are the two French ones, France 1 representing greater Paris and France 2 representing the rest of the country. Worth noting is Italy’s Ennahda vote, due to the European nation being a receiver of lower-ability migrants and refugees; a much tighter race in the Middle East between the big two than anywhere else; and Nidaa’s strength in North America, where Quebec is a popular destination for well-off Tunisian families.
Two last points should be made about national trends. The elected Assembly gives a much larger seat premium to Ennahda relative to their vote totals (4% absolute percentage difference) than Nidaa. One reason is that Ennahda is simply more dominant in the South, where there is a fewer number of coherent parties than in the North, meaning the party is likelier to grab extra remainder seats.
Another is that there is constituency malapportionment: voters per seat in Tunis, the Sahel or Gabes is up to twice as those in the desert or in the Northwest. This is less of a problem in 2014, if only because both main parties had dominance in overrepresented and underrepresented areas.
Second, total votes are down by 600000, despite a higher turnout of a culled list of registered voters. Bits and pieces of reporting would attribute this decrease to a fallen youth vote. Already disappointed with the old faces in 2011, middle-class or non-Islamist youth have dropped in larger numbers.
Even after the rejection of most of the Constituent Assembly’s members—Ennahda leaders aside—there are few signs of a “new generation” of leaders. At most, this legislature represents a crowd 10-20 years younger, including those who have profited greater from the Ben Ali regime. Ennahda spokesperson Zied Laahari, at 39 years old, is this election’s youngest leadership figure.
Presidential — The Candidates
The division between the parliamentary and the presidential campaigns is somewhat arbitrary. Registration for candidates began in early September and a definitive list was finalized by October; accepted candidates either had to receive 10000 signatures supporting their candidacies, or a 10000 dinar deposit. Given how personality-based Tunisian parties still are, the campaigns essentially blended together.
There is one very important difference: Ennahda, perhaps to the point of appeasement, did not run a presidential candidate from its party. Though it left open the possibility of supporting a consensus candidate, in November the Shura Council decided not to do so either. The decision is an effective concession from Ennahda to Essebsi, who has desired the Presidency since founding Nidaa. An extremely controversial decision (former PM Jebali resigned from Ennahda due to this), it left an Islamist base drifting to find a presidential candidate.
The Constitutional requirements for the Presidency is that one must be over 35 years old, holds only Tunisian citizenship and Muslim. About 70 candidates presented their candidacies to ISIE; after fake signatures were annulled, 27 were approved.
This crowd of candidates can be divided into four groups: administrators in the old regime, members of the secular opposition, millionaire businessmen and nonpartisan members of civil society. In the first round, Essebsi was the clear frontrunner; there were, however, other candidates worth mention.
MOHAMED BÉJI CAID ESSEBSI — Call him “Grandpa” or “Strongman”; Essebsi is a candidate that is radically different from the rest of the crowd. With some skill and some luck, he has gathered decades of experience in government and was brought back into modern Tunisian politics as a transitory Prime Minister. Now the Presidency seems like his to lose.
Born on 1926 in Sidi Bou Said, a Tunis suburb and vacation destination for many French celebrities, Essebsi was caught up in the early protests for independence and entered the youth wing of Bourguiba’s Neo-Destour. Quickly befriending Bourguiba’s son, an Essebsi coming out of law school became known to the President himself. Once the Republic was founded, Bourguiba tasked Essebsi within the Interior Ministry, handling internal security and regional development. His good performance there elevated him higher and, after Bourguiba discovered a coup against him in 1962, he wanted Essebsi to lead the investigation. When the Interior Minister himself died from diabetes, Bourguiba pushed Essebsi to lead the ministry.
Essebsi himself would claim his stint as Interior Minister was dovish, that he would frequently desist from cracking down and that he would become disillusioned by the government. Opponents, some opposition politicians included, would claim he was complicit in torture and should be imprisoned for his crimes. Judging from how Bourguiba relieved him from cabinet in 1969, Essebsi did not do a great job confronting alleged communists, Ba’athists and Islamists, never mind protests against Bourguiba’s collectivism or anti-Americanism. This murky period of Essebsi’s past, though, has not been taken on by the courts—nor is it likely to be if he is elected president.
Essebsi, after being shuffled out of government, had a period where he protested against Bourguiba’s party. Censured, he left politics to practice law. By the eighties, as Bourguiba named a new cabinet to confront a new wave of protests, Prime Minister Mzali called Essebsi to rejoin government. Here is another murky part of history: what prompted Essebsi to rejoin Bourguiba’s government and to remain with it, even though the following years were more and more repressive. Essebsi claimed most of cabinet did not realize Bourguiba fixed elections after his turnaround on democracy, and by that point there was too much to be done.
Shuffled out of government again in 1987, Essebsi was sent out as an ambassador when Ben Ali took over. Here is Essebsi’s last mystery: his time spent in Ben Ali’s RCD from 1987 to about 1998. Elected in Tunis during Ben Ali’s questionable 1989 elections, he was named the legislature’s President from its start to about 1991. On his role in Ben Ali’s legislature, Essebsi said on the record that he respects the law, believed in reform and wanted to lead the way to a deliberative assembly. It makes a huge difference whether Essebsi was relieved of his duties out of his own intemperance or Ben Ali’s paranoia, but we don’t know.
What is the point of that long biography? It is impossible for anyone to have Essebsi’s prestige in the party and not to be accused of participating in the old regime’s vices. For an Ennahda Islamist, Essebsi is craven for power, with a history of torture and mooching with the nation’s elite to retain political influence. To the man himself, he is a firm believer in Bourguiba’s vision and rule of law, only to be alienated by the Presidents and foiled in his attempts to reform politics. The truth, wherever it is placed between those extremes, was not found during the campaign.
Regardless, Essebsi’s return to power began in 2011. Named to lead a cabinet by Fouad Mebazaa—interim president, served in the same cabinet as Essebsi and much more complacent to Ben Ali—the octogenarian lead a transition government to October elections. Though not a perfect administrator, his government seems very competent compared to the Troika’s troubles. After the transition to the Troika, he re-entered politics again to start Nidaa Tounes; what followed was covered earlier.
Since Nidaa is focused on him, his policies and the party’s blend together: strongly anti-Islamist, primarily focused on restoring national security and order. Essebsi himself has wound up all the Bourguiba nostalgia he could muster; his campaign started off with a speech in front of Bourguiba’s mausoleum, its square packed to the brim with supporters. He talks both about restoring the Bourguiba ideal of a secular, coherent Tunisian nation and rebuilding the “prestige of the state.”
Essebsi is well-versed in Islam (as did Bourguiba, to be clear)—his speeches include Quranic verses and he has repeatedly defended the Tunisian state’s unique approach to the faith. Even then, he is heckled and sometimes assaulted when he makes visits to the country’s South. There was also a minor controversy when he dismissed an Ennahda parliamentarian for being “only a woman,” and gender parity does not come naturally to him.
All the controversy aside, there is one more point about Essebsi: without any disrespect, most people with a tenure dating back to his years have died. Essebsi is 88 now; if he assumes office, the only non-ceremonial head of state older than him is Robert Mugabe. There have been some cheap jokes thrown about his age. It does discredit the opposition against him somewhat.
MOHAMED MONCEF MARZOUKI — The incumbent president, Marzouki entered office as a stirring leader and leaving his first term a divisive leader. While Marzouki’s political past is not as storied as Essebsi’s, his faults have been in clear view in the post-Revolution age. He has the dubious honour of being the first Tunisian politician to have a nickname bestowed by the internet: “Tartour,” an insignificant person, a puppet.
Though born on the Cap Bon in the North, Marzouki’s parents originated in the country’s south, a fact he trumpets often. Supporters of Ben Youssef and his more Islamic and less nationalist politics, the family migrated to Morocco during Bourguiba’s early purge of that wing. Marzouki performed well in school, enough for admittance into the French higher education system. He became a doctor and faculty at Strasbourg’s Medical School until he returned to his birthplace in 1979.
Soon after his arrival, he ascended up the ranks of the Tunisia Human Rights League (LTDH). The organization, established during Bourguiba’s calls for multiparty democracy in the eighties, began heavily criticizing the aging President. While its founders were conciliatory with Ben Ali and entered his government, Marzouki was elected League President in 1989. Ben Ali’s brutal crackdown on Ennahda and political opponents quickly followed, and Marzouki broke ties with the regime on the matter.
Facing a strident LTDH, Ben Ali tried amending the law to force the League to accept any members, even RCD infiltrators. The organization was even banned for a brief period before the League decided to cooperate and overthrow Marzouki. Alone, the doctor tried to contest Ben Ali’s Presidency and create independent organizations condemning the regime’s human rights abuses. Arrested multiple times, he became a bit of a cause celebre across international dissidents and human rights organizations.
Forming the CPR with four associates in 2001, he found his party quickly banned and moved to exile to France in 2002. While abroad, his attitudes to the regime hardened, as well as his antagonism of the secular opposition. In 2003, he signed a note of cooperation with Ennahda. He stopped talking about “secularism” and more about “total freedom of belief and religion.” This is the image he presented on the campaign in 2011; a firm believer in Tunisia’s Muslim identity, strongly critical of all regime collaborators, and a man of the people who has placed his life to defend Tunisia’s freedoms.
Scoring very well in the Constituent Assembly elections, Marzouki would enter into an agreement with Ennahda, the so-called Troika government. In the start, he demanded that he would not be subordinated to the Prime Minister and pursue his own agenda of internal reform. He would not have many allies outside of the Troika. Stung by his collaboration with the Islamists, other secular parties wrote in blank votes when he was elected President.
The biggest problem with Marzouki is this: he was not a politician cast into the Presidency, but a member of civil society. Even rarer, he is a member of civil society who burned any connections to the secular opposition successful ones do. To make things worse, he served as an interim President whose role relative to a parliamentary government was blurred. As the “Tartour” nickname indicates, Marzouki was stuck with all of Ennahda’s incompetence while playing a rhetorical role Tunisians found increasingly silly against present crises.
Policy-wise, Marzouki stood out in his two main responsibilities: foreign policy and internal order. With no foreign policy experience before the presidency, Marzouki promised a Tunisia that would focus more on connections to Africa and the Arab World. He is a strident supporter of Arab Spring movements, who feted Gaddafi’s death and one of the few world leaders to cut diplomatic ties with al-Assad’s Syria. He has also called out Arab nations who have suppressed Islamist movements and curtailed democracy: this unsurprisingly dampened ties with el-Sisi’s Egypt and Algeria, Tunisia’s western neighbour and on-and-off ally.
With a government roiled by political crisis, Marzouki could not actually initiate policy shifts with the EU, Africa or its neighbours. As it turns out, Libya’s revolution collapsed into a second civil war, amplifying the security concerns. What he had left was a great deal of invective that did little and maybe alienated the US from him.
The same kinds of invective and ritual became his legacy on internal order. With the region destabilizing due to jihadist flows between Tunisia, Libya and Syria, Marzouki did not have the political capital to unite the region in a crackdown. He also lacked control over the police apparatus, and is still blamed for not capturing the assassins of Belaid and Brahmi. He makes much pomp and gesture after the fact: paying respects to “martyrs of the Revolution,” or throwing flowers into the ocean for drowned asylum seekers. What some only dismisses as sentimentalism is populism to others, or even a sign that the President is conspiring with Ennahda and Qatar to subvert the Tunisian state.
By 2014, Marzouki had ceded the role of preeminent statesman to Essebsi. Faced with criticism in media and on the streets, the President blamed a growing number of “old regime forces” trying to collaborate and roll back the Revolution. He has echoed this theory throughout his tenure, warning that people like Essebsi only wants to guarantee the rights of the few, the elite. This resonates with the rank-and-file of Ennahda, who have similar thoughts after Ennahda’s compromise.
Then the game changer: Ennahda refuses to select or endorse a candidate. Over the course of two months, Ennahda partisans gravitated mostly towards Marzouki. He realised this and started his campaign with fierce speeches decrying the old regime’s efforts. For all of his faults, he is still admired by a section of Tunisians who admire his record, his moral code, his common touch and his passion. With Essebsi as the frontrunner, Marzouki has staffed his campaign with remaining allies and Ennahda officers. He is fighting back with everything on the line, and with a vengeance.
HAMMA HAMMAMI — The 62-year old Hammami is also a storied opponent of the old regime. Born in the fields of Siliana to the Northwest, Hammami radicalized early against Bourguiba. A member of student unions and eventually the far-left Perspectives movement, he was among the rank and guard of the first opposition movements since the Republic’s founding. After the movement organized student protests against Bourguiba in 1972, the President broke apart the organization and sentenced members in show trials. Hammami was sentenced to prison for six years, where he was tortured and was later released at Amnesty International’s request.
By Ben Ali’s presidency, Hammami had founded the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT), a Maoist splinter from Perspectives. For that reason, he was hunted down by the state during the police state’s growth in the early nineties. Going underground after several arrests, Hammami was again captured in 1994 and nearly died from torture by police. This is when international organizations began to notice him, and after lobbying he was released a year later. Up to 2011, he spent his life in hiding, in jail before some kind of pardon, and giving voice interviews to Tunisian expatriates. It would be cruel, though accurate, to say among all major Tunisian politicians he was most subjected to state torture.
Despite his record, he was still one of the first opposition figures to call for Ben Ali’s dismissal days before the Revolution. He was arrested again, but released four days later. He then distinguished himself by leading continued protests in the Kasbah, Tunis’s government quarter, until the RCD government removed itself and paved the way to a Constituent Assembly.
His party, the now-legalised PCOT, scored poorly in the Constituent Assembly elections but gained three seats from the Interior and his native Siliana. Hammami, who did not actually sit as a candidate, also began to shift politically. While still a man of the left, he had given up on revolutionary communism and began to play politics. He moved to rename the PCOT to the “Workers’ Party,” to not alienate voters scared by the C-word. He allied with other Arab nationalist movements to form the Popular Front, and he specifically targeted the Troika, a government dominated by Islamists too incompetent in disbanding Ben Ali’s police state and dangerously competent in everything else.
With Belaid’s shooting in 2013, Hammami turned hardline to the Troika. He was among the first to call for the government’s demission and suspension of the Constituent Assembly. With him at its lead, the Popular Front took to the streets and lead an occupation before the Assembly after Brahmi’s shooting. Essebsi and the rest of civil society followed suit. He gained media traction; he won the sympathies of the middle class. Hammami began to talk of himself as an alternative for anyone who refuses to choose between the old regime and the terrorizing Islamists.
Coming into this campaign, Hammami is quite respected by Tunisians (southern Islamists aside). He is the one politician who was untainted by the Constituent Assembly and unabsorbed by Nidaa. But people still see him as a communist, with no government experience and too radical to lead the nation in a post like the presidency.
In response he has organised a very professional campaign, in which he also fostered a grandpa image, coming off as authentic and charming. He has reaffirmed his Muslim faith, gathered the attention of youth and met with urban Tunisia’s middle class. Most distinctively, he personally sounded like an optimist without appealing to nostalgia, Islam or social divisions. Those who were caught up by the Revolution and lost faith in it want to take another chance by voting him.
MOHAMED HECHMI HAMDI — Hamdi is best categorized as a millionaire businessman, but everything about his political career has been bizarre. His policies are so uproarious that the French Wikipedia describes his ideology as “demagogy”. The man himself has a contradictory past, hard to sort out but nonetheless relevant to Tunisian politics.
Born in Sidi Bouzid, Hamdi studied Islam in university and was a figure in Ennahda’s youth wing around the late eighties. He resigned from the party, however, in 1992, right while Ben Ali was torturing the party into oblivion. Being already in London at this time for his studies, Hamdi started out in journalism and wrote columns for his own papers and others.
In 1997, Hamdi met with Ben Ali with an offer: if he offered amnesty to Hamdi and select Ennahda prisoners, the journalist would use his papers to denounce the party. Though Ben Ali apparently never gave the pardon, Hamdi was authorized to have his satellite TV channel, Al-Mustaquilla (The Independent), broadcast in Tunisia.
Suddenly, his channel provided a pivotal role against the President. In 2000, Hamdi produced a show, “The Great Maghreb,” which was supposed to pit government officials in debate against opposition figures. What happened was that opposition figures underground or in exile would show up on the show next to an empty seat, their appearances causing waves of attention in Tunisia. But the authorities shut the show down eventually, and the next decade the channel showed Ben Ali propaganda.
After the revolution, Hamdi—remaining in London all this time—began to use his channel to promote his political movement. The “Popular Petition” promised a very generous welfare scheme for the poor, including universal healthcare and unemployment insurance. He also allegedly used his RCD connections to push votes in rural regions, the reason for which the ISIE at first invalidated his party’s results. In the end he elected 26 assemblypeople, the third-largest party in the Constituent Assembly.
Ennadha refused to enter into a coalition with him, calling him a traitor for his collaboration with Ben Ali. Secular parties spurned him, and the politicians propelled into office on his lists left due to a lack of control over the party. His party had seven elected officials by the Constituent Assembly’s end.
Hamdi declared his presidency in May 2014, running now on a more Islamist platform. Under him there will be an office of zakat, governing the Islamic rite of donating to the poor. He would demand Sharia law and has mocked the current Constitution that lacks it. He would tax the rich, decentralize the country and even move the country’s capital to the interior city of Kairouan. Though he withdrew his candidacy after his party scored only two seats, he changed his mind and returned to Tunisia after 18 years to campaign on the ground.
Hamdi, at least, defies the division between Islamist and old regime seen across the media. (He has also promised to stop promoting himself on his channel if Tunisia’s TV networks end their embargo on his party.) On one hand he has become a total Islamist, aping Ennahda’s concern for the poor. On the other, he has never shaken off his connections to the RCD and may still be calling ex-party officials in the interior. On social media, he has claimed that he will dominate Sidi Bouzid and the interior; maybe he’s right.
SLIM RIAHI — Much of what is known about Riahi’s political history was already covered in the UPL section earlier. Unlike the other four candidates—who have had some run-in with the old regime in their past—Riahi’s history is mostly closed off from public view. His family moved to Libya, since they were Arab nationalists too extreme for Bourguiba’s Tunisia. He then grew his fortune in Libya, with a hand in oil production, manufacturing and real estate. He has ties to Western companies in Libya, as well as an alleged connection with the Gaddafis.
Does he have a connection to the old regime? Is he even offering charity services to the poor like he says he is? Some investigations cast doubt on those questions, all vehemently denied by him. None of that stopped him from his impressive result in the parliamentary elections, and voters found him to be understanding of Tunisia’s youth. His dynamism is recognized despite a much less lavish campaign than his 2011 effort.
While the presidential campaign moved onward, Riahi was already thinking about electoral coalitions. He threw his support behind a Nidaa-led government quickly, and reports are that he is involved in negotiations. No matter his score in the Presidential elections, he seems well positioned to take a chunk of power.
AHMED NÉJIB CHEBBI — The above five candidates, judging from their parties’ results in the parliamentary elections, are the only ones with any chance of contending the Presidency. But something has to be said about Néjib Chebbi, whose career I consider as post-revolution Tunisia’s great political tragedy.
Néjib Chebbi began as a leftist radical about the same time as Hammami. Instead of continuing on with Marxism, he started a reformist wing in the movement and moved towards liberalism. Sentenced to 32 years in prison in 1974, he was pardoned in 1981 and took advantage of Ben Ali’s pluralism in 1988. The most radical of Tunisia’s legalised opposition figures, Chebbi still faced constant harassment from Ben Ali’s state.
As an act of protest, Chebbi took part in two publicized hunger strikes which lasted for a month each. He also ran to oppose Ben Ali in two presidential elections, only to be denied each time. Even after the Revolution he took an independent path, refusing to serve in a unity government with RCD officials. Developing a circle of younger candidates and businesspeople, his party stood out among the secular opposition. His one moment of collaboration was with Nidaa—a fatal mistake.
Chebbi’s Joumhouri party performed disastrously in the elections, which left his presidential campaign up in the air. Despite being steadfastly opposed to the Troika and maybe even less conciliatory to them than Nidaa, Chebbi has lost his influence to Essebsi. His campaign focused on him being one of the original opposition figures and his promise to guarantee fundamental liberties to all Tunisians. By October, Chebbi tried to reach out to Ennahda’s voters to support him as a consensual, neutral president. Nobody listened.
OTHERS — Among the other 21 candidates, about 4 or 5 are of note:
- Kamel Morjane, Ben Ali’s last foreign minister. Leader of the Initiative/Moubadara Party, he has been on record denouncing the ban on the RCD and wishes to continue the “Destourian” movement. Called by some as reformist and surviving prosecution against him, he has fashioned himself as a consensus creator.
- Mustapha Ben Jaafar, leader of Ettakatol, the third of the Troika parties. After his party wiped out in the parliamentary elections, he called for the “democrats” to rally behind a single candidate apart from Essebsi and Marzouki. Only one or two listened.
- Larbi Nasra, an example of a businessman with clear connections to Ben Ali. Creator of Hannibal TV, Tunisia’s first private network, Nasra married into the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family. After supposed arrest and liquidation of his business, he is starting his own party and running again, to little fanfare.
- Kalthoum Kannou, the only female candidate in this election. That fact has put foreign spotlight on her, as well as attention in Tunisian civil society. In her campaign, however, she has focused on her accomplishments: a judge on Tunisia’s Supreme Court, prone to prosecution during the Ben Ali regime. She refuses any idea of her running “on behalf of women,” saying that “the other 26 candidates aren’t running on behalf of men.”
- Mustapha Kamel Nabli, economist and interim director of Tunisia’s Central Bank after Ben Ali’s departure. As technocratic a candidate as this election offered, he assembled a team of Tunisian thinkers for his campaign team and retained no traction. Though no names can be removed from the ballot, he withdrew his candidacy, bemoaning dirty money and a candidate trying to divide the Tunisian people, i.e. Marzouki.
Presidential — Results and Analysis
While not all 27 results will be shown, vote totals for candidates mentioned above are accounted for below:
RESULTS: VOTE TOTAL/VOTE PERCENTAGE
Béji Caid Essebsi 1289384 / 39.46%
Moncef Marzouki 1092418 / 33.43%
Hamma Hammami 255529 / 7.82%
Hechmi Hamdi 187923 / 5.75%
Slim Riahi 181407 / 5.55%
Kamel Morjane 41614 / 1.27%
Ahmed Néjib Chebbi 34025 / 1.04%
Mustapha Ben Jaafar 21989 / 0.67%
Kalthoum Kannou 18287 / 0.56%
Mustapha Kamel Nabli 6723 / 0.21%
Larbi Nasra 6426 / 0.20%
Total votes cast: 3339666 (Turnout 62.91%)
Though Essebsi predictably came out on top, Marzouki’s second-place finish was a surprise: the two only trailed by six percentage points, and commentators suddenly thought that this was a tight race. Further analysis can be seen from the main candidates’ results, which are available at the Delegation level from ISIE. They also proxy as a deeper look at the demographics behind the parties they lead.
General regional trends mentioned earlier (analysis of “the Northwest” or “the South”) will not be repeated here. What follows will be organized less according to candidate and more by environment.
The very uniform results in the South is good evidence for support for Marzouki among Ennahda rank-and-file, corresponding to reports on mass Marzouki rallies and intimidation of Essebsi supporters. A belt, consisting of the governorates of Kebili, Gabes and Medenine, all have Marzouki percentages around 65%. There is a slight drop-off in Marzouki’s vote in the more coastal, industrial cities of Gabes, the remote oases of Tozeur and the southernmost delegations of Tataouine. A bizarrely large cluster of Riahi voters exist in Dehiba, one of two border checkpoints between Tunisia and Libya and has seen violence over the last two years. The phenomenon is as much low turnout as anything.
Consolidation of the vote in Gafsa and Kasserine see Marzouki performing much better than Ennahda, since the many voters who decided on regional lists would rather have Marzouki than the old regime stalwart himself. Marzouki’s lead is fairly consistent, until it disappears in the northern, more mountainous parts of Kasserine. Essebsi wins one delegation, covering the western agricultural hinterland of Gafsa City, and Hammami has strong support among the former miners of Redeyef, instigations of the 2008 protests.
Around here, though, is when Hamdi’s strength becomes very apparent. His brand of Islamist populism is strong in the central governorates of Kasserine and Kairouan (surrounding the city he want as capital of Tunis), but his rhetoric is as much one of giving power to the interior as well as “populism” pure and simple. But it is in Sidi Bouzid where Hamdi’s lead becomes ridiculous: partly a favourite son effect and more probably leveraging off of RCD connections, Hamdi won every delegation in the governorate, some with over 75% of the vote. His total domination of Sidi Bouzid is why he leaps over Riahi in the total vote. Only Essebsi’s voter base is not subsumed into Hamdi’s; even the Brahmi sympathy vote awarded to the Popular Front is barely visible.
Going eastwards, Hamdi’s influence continues. Marzouki and Ennahda, however, escape their nonexistent organization in Sidi Bouzid and become a considerable worse. Marzouki scores especially well in the suburbs of industrial Sfax, mostly slum settlements undeveloped by the state. This would partly be due to Ennahda’s better organization as a social movement in these areas, as well as Marzouki’s common touch. In a first contrast to interior cities, Essebsi does better in Sfax’s city centre than in the greater agglomeration. Essebsi also scored better in the tourist city of Mahres, and Hammami has support in Sfax’s northern olive plantations and the islands of Kerkennah, birthplace to a surprising number of Tunisian trade unionists.
The Northwest’s mountains (northern Kasserine and El Kef) are where Essebsi does the best in the entire country, since these are the areas where the terrorists are best embedded. Marzouki’s vote dissipates here, and the only candidates of mention are Essebsi and Hammami. Hammami scores well in major cities, but a bit eastwards in Siliana is where the favourite son effect dominates. Hammami takes Elaroussa, his home delegation, by 57% of the vote; the leftist is the leading candidate in most of Siliana, losing to Essebsi in the governorate’s mountainous or arid edges.
Essebsi continues to dominate in Jendouba and Beja, where Marzouki’s vote revives somewhat and Riahi’s becomes a factor. If Hamdi practices a type of “interior populism,” Riahi’s populism, more economic and more in-tune with Nidaa’s talking points, is better heard by the North. The governorate of Bizerte is divided between a heavily Essebsi west and the mountainous East, where cities vote for Marzouki and rural areas vote for Essebsi. Marzouki, in the first round, actually takes the more industrial section of Bizerte city, one of the country’s greatest ports.
In the Sahel, Essebsi totally dominates. This is the Bourguiba reviver’s strongest region, with up to 50-60% of the vote in most delegations. Voters who would’ve been appealed by Afek, or Riahi, or any secular opposition, crowd to Essebsi instead. There are two notable exceptions. Marzouki won the delegation of M’Seken in Sousse, a centre of Tunisia’s olive-growing activity. Hammami did not win but scored well in the town of Chebba, with a history of opposing the RCD and booing Marzouki out of its borders.
The Cap Bon is as strongly Essebsi as the Sahel, for it is the home of Tunisia’s independence movement, a tourism industry that has seen a lag and close to the occasional terrorist attack. Now Essebsi’s best delegation is Nabeul, the area’s largest city. Hammami does better outside of the tourist zones, and the populists the converse. Marzouki does not label himself as a son of the peninsula, so no sympathy vote here.
To Kairouan Governorate’s North and Zaghouan Governorate is a temperate and agricultural area, mildly for Essebsi due as much to poor Ennahda organization as anything; turnout is about the same level as those in the interior. Northern Zaghouan, however, is home to the Bir-Mcherga Dam. From there to its Northeast is an industrial belt of sorts, including the complexes in Fouchana and Mohamedia. This is a stretch of land Marzouki won, albeit with less than 10% margins. This is also the southern border of Riahi’s main areas of support.
All that is left in Tunisia is metro, or “Grand,” Tunis. Its southern suburbs are in Ben Arous governorate, incidentally the governorate with the highest turnout. The suburbs can be split into two: a richer, coastal half home to cosmopolitan and educated residents, and an inner half mostly constructed by the state and housing lower-income populations. The coastal half went heavily Essebsi, while the inner half was mostly split. Marzouki did take El-Mourouj, one of Tunis’s largest banlieues. Riahi and Hammami both did about the same on both halves, with Riahi scoring better around the great port of Rades.
The northern suburbs can count for all of Ariana Governorate, still one of the most pro-Essebsi regions overall. Ariana City, home to Brahmi’s shooting, is one of Essebsi’s strongest regions, with fewer but leading support in the Governorate’s dryer North. Marzouki captures Ettadahmen-Mnihla, projects built over former slums. Riahi is more competitive with Marzouki in the projects and in the North than Hammami compared to Essebsi.
The Governorate of Manouba, as well as Tunis Governorate, contain all of the western suburbs. Absent the far west—rural areas going for Essebsi—the western suburbs have Riahi’s highest support as well as Marzouki’s. The slum of Ezzouhour is especially pro-Marzouki, giving even a good score for Hamdi as well (his only good performance in Grand Tunis). Essebsi and Marzouki are locked in a dead heat here.
Downtown Tunis is quite pro-Essebsi, with a division between the northern “New City” and the older South. As one gets further South, one enters the migrant housing around Lake Sijoumi and Tunis’s industrial zone, divided between Essebsi and Marzouki; Riahi also did very well here. As one goes further North and the New City turns to villas and houses, one enters the most pro-Essebsi part of the country. The Menzah neighbourhood, home to Tunisia’s best universities and safest quarters, is the most pro-Essebsi municipality of any sort.
Eastwards are more nouveau riche areas, curling around Lake Tunis and then reaching the Mediterranean. Cities on the water’s edge, like Carthage and La Marsa, are home to the country’s political elite. These also end up being extremely pro-Essebsi, its denizens benefitting as much from the old regime as imaginable.
In Tunisia proper, at least, we can see a solid Ennahda-Marzouki South, a solid Essebsi Sahel, a Northwest that swung equally to Bourguibism and leftism, a rallying behind the anti-establishment candidate in the interior, a class division between poor Marzouki voters and Essebsi voters in coastal cities, and two flavours of populism in Hamdi and Riahi. Class trends probably dominate expatriate results, but it is also telling that Essebsi only won in France 2, which includes the wealthiest Tunisians in the South and the French Riviera. For migrants, Marzouki still represents the new, post-revolutionary Tunisia.
With all that said, the second round came down to Essebsi and Marzouki. Their supporters are furious with each other, and ISIE had to deploy extra security to prevent outbreaks of violence. The campaign turned nasty, with Marzouki coming out and even suggesting fraud for Essebsi at the highest level. Both candidates introduced themselves to the foreign press, both accusing the others of support by a shadowy force. For what it’s worth, Essebsi is worse at equating Islamist voters with Islamist leadership, accusing general “Islamists” as the only thing supporting Marzouki’s campaign.
Marzouki went on the offensive and demanded Essebsi engage in a televised debate with him, as well as blasting Nidaa for delaying cabinet formation he should oversee due to Marzouki not being considered a legitimate president (Marzouki, for the record, was not a member of the national dialogue). Essebsi’s campaign refused the offer, and the two camps festered from there.
The bigger problem belongs to the candidates not named Essebsi or Marzouki, who together received 28% of the vote. Who can they support in the second round without alienating their voter base? For the numerous ministers contesting the presidency who worked in the old regime, the choice was obviously Essebsi. The same went for the secular parties gobbled up by Nidaa. Candidates from civil society, like polemicist Safi Said or Kasserine judge Ali Chourabi, did the same (and reprimanded by the judges’ association with it). Chebbi’s Joumhouri stayed neutral, as did Ennahda after intense deliberation in the Shura Council.
More important, though, are the words from the third to fifth ranked candidates. Riahi met with both candidates, but strongly supported Essebsi in early December. Hamdi did not make an endorsement, asking his supporters to vote for those who can best protect freedom of expression. Hammami and the Popular Front, days before the second round proper, finally released a statement: either vote against Marzouki or vote blank. Such are the torturous wording needed in Tunisian politics.
With no polling allowed, the fears of a tight race dominate. But, in view of the number of anti-Marzouki endorsements alone, Essebsi seemed like the clear favourite. The results confirmed this.
RESULTS: VOTE TOTAL/VOTE PERCENTAGE
BÉJI CAID ESSEBSI: 1731529 / 55.68%
MONCEF MARZOUKI: 1378513 / 44.32%
TURNOUT: 59% (Approx.)
Despite the dropoff in turnout, both candidates increased their vote count in every delegation. Looking at the map of raw vote percentages for each delegation, we see very few areas swinging from one side or the other. The total amount of votes gained by Essebsi is greater than Marzouki, and in terms of delegations there was only a shift from Marzouki leads to Essebsi ones.
There are two big shifts of note. The first is Essebsi’s reclaiming of Grand Tunis, thanks to support from Riahi, Hammami and other opposition candidates. Marzouki went from winning several delegations to the poorer South and West to only two: Ezzouhour and Ettadahmen, previously mentioned slums. The margins of victory in neighbourhoods Essebsi gained were slim, lower than his 11-point victory on the national level. The area saw decreased turnouts everywhere, with the lowest drops in the richest neighbourhoods and poor migrant ones. (Looking across the city, the two populations would have felt how alien their opponents’ supporters were.)
The second big shift is Essebsi’s retaking of Sidi Bouzid. The turnout map shows a dramatic fall in votes compared to the first round; up to 30 percent, certainly caused by disillusioned Hamdi voters. What is bizarre is that, despite his heavily Islamist platform, remaining Hamdi voters chose Essebsi over Marzouki by a few thousand votes’ worth across the governorate. This is also in contrast to other governorates in the interior where Hamdi did well, where Marzouki’s lead in the first round remains or has increased. I want to think this is further evidence that Hamdi repowered RCD operatives in his home, who remained after his defeat to rally Essebsi voters.
It is, overall, a rather bad defeat for Marzouki. Though we can see there were increases in turnout throughout the South, especially in interior Medenine and Gabes, coupled with decreased turnout everywhere else, it was not enough to overcome an anti-Islamist front. Margins narrowed in poor urban suburbs in Essebsi’s favour, and he scored even better in the Northwest. With very few expatriates voting this time, class divisions seen earlier remained.
We can look at one more statistic: the increase in Essebsi’s or Marzouki’s second-round votes over first-round votes, divided by the number of votes not cast for them in the first round. Under very strict assumptions—that every voter in a delegation who support a candidate turned out in the first round, and every Essebsi or Marzouki supporter did not change support in the second—these statistics are upper bounds on the percentage of third-party voters supporting a candidate. Tunisia’s elections, a landmark event with two very antagonistic sides, is a special occasion that makes these assumptions slightly worth entertaining.
What this shows us is that Essebsi’s upper bound on third-party support is about 50-60 percent in the North and the Sahel, 40-50 percent in Grand Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, 60-80 percent in the Northwest, up to the mountains of Kasserine, and 30-40 percent in other interior areas. More informative than raw turnout numbers, this verifies the intuition that third party supporters do not vote in lockstep. A portion of voters of the two populist businessmen (Riahi and Hamdi) should have supported Marzouki in the second round, or did not vote in protest.
We can also see that almost all areas with an increase in turnout shows either similar increases in votes for both candidates or a wide lead for Marzouki. The theory could be that Ennahda members saw that Marzouki could actually win and ramped up their canvassing accordingly. In areas with a strong third-party presence, the sight of this pushed those voters and Nidaa sympathizers to vote.
When all is done and said, Essebsi did emerge triumphant; he had good reason to celebrate right after polls were closed and exit polls showed lead even smaller than the actual result. Though Marzouki had lambasted these early celebrations and cast doubt on ISIE’s management, he did accept the results in the end. Ennahda partisans in the South did not, hence news reports of protests and tear gas in Hamma, Rachid Ghannouchi’s birth town, on election night. The cycle, in a way, begins anew.
After three years of revolution, protest and reconciliation, Tunisians have a new democratic Constitution and a legitimate, elected government. This government is also oddly similar to those first assembled by Tunisia’s first two presidents, with a stridently nationalist President staffed by a group of close associates. The Islamists, warning of an Essebsi administration cracking down on religious freedoms and the movement itself, waits in suspense.
The story, though, is more complicated than this. If we exclude support from Ennahda (-69), leftists who will not support the government’s liberal economics (-18), secular opposition (-9) and other independents unlikely to yield support (-3), the largest coalition Nidaa can build will have 118 seats, a majority of eleven. Consequently, the UPL alone has enough seats to decide the government’s fate.
There is another option: both Ennahda and Nidaa have expressed interest in working with the other to form a grand coalition. As much as such an act would spark inner revolt, party leadership has repeated this for reasons of fostering a unity government who can solve Tunisia’s problems.
The weirdness of these declarations arrives when both sides say they wait for the other to begin negotiations, and rumours of Ennahda ministers in the new government is shot down by the party’s assemblypeople. Progress, however, seemed to show after the Assembly already approved three presidents of the chamber, including current Nidaa leader Ennaceur but also Ennahda elder Moutou.
On January 5, one week after Essebsi’s swearing in, government formation began. The President named Habib Essid as Prime Minister designate; he is a senior bureaucrat in Ben Ali’s Agriculture Ministry, but more relevantly was shifted to the Interior Ministry for four years in the late nineties before advising on national security in the Essebsi and Jebali governments.
For someone with that kind of experience, his nomination was strangely welcomed by every major party except the Popular Front. A week after, Ennahda’s Shura Council okayed any participation in the next government. Supposing all other parties will enter Essid’s unity government, four major problems await resolution:
- Balancing national security and freedoms.
- Obviously the top issue facing the government, the elimination of domestic terrorism is a problem with no easy answer. The Tunisian Military, along with police, are continuing to attack terrorist hideouts on the Tunisian-Algerian border, the South and in major cities. But, in an attempt to accomplish this, the country’s state of emergency was extended up to this year, and bloggers have been jailed for writing supposed threats to public officials. This is not to mention that the police is mostly unreformed, charged with incidents of unwarranted assault, seizure and rape. The rights of independent domestic observers to monitor the state must be better acknowledged.
- Sustaining equitable growth across regions and age groups.
- Absent members of the far-left, Tunisia’s Parliament are willing to accept reforms to cut the government deficit and privatize state institutions. The Troika has not had the power to enact policy changes, such as an end to byzantine tariffs used to protect businesses close to Ben Ali. Educated youth, facing no demand in the labour markets, also need to be supported by the state in their search for adequate employment. Same goes for developing Tunisia outside of the rich coast, at least providing those in the interior with basic services and new industries.
- Decentralization of power.
- Municipal and governorate elections should be held in the future, another departure from the Ben Ali years; the old regime appointed these officials. These local entities’ powers, however, remain to be defined in law. Finding an appropriate balance between state responsibilities and local governance is necessary to achieve the equitable growth talked about earlier.
- Prosecution of old regime offenses.
- Slowly but surely, Tunisia’s courts have sentenced old regime figures for charges of corruption and abuse of power. Unlike what one hears about in Egypt or Turkey, the Tunisian judiciary form an independent faction of civil society. But, while someone like Marzouki took his chance to publish records of Ben Ali’s abuses from the Presidential Library, Essebsi ought to take a different path. Nidaa is on the record for opposing Constituent Assembly legislation that created a Truth and Reconciliation Committee responsible for prosecuting past offenses. A future conflict over the prosecution’s extents could break Parliament’s grand coalition.
After all that has been written, there is still much left unmentioned: not enough was written about Tunisia’s foreign policy with Middle Eastern countries, the role of female leadership, deteriorating health in the interior, the state of the self-employed, identity among Berber or Afro-Tunisian populations or the role of migration in modern Tunisia. Not enough is known, either.
What we do know is that, four years after revolution, Tunisia is still in transition. Many overcome with optimism in 2011 had become disillusioned by politics, unwilling to vote. For those who still vote, we saw the electorate was roughly divided into thirds. One supports Ennahda while the other supports Nidaa, spiteful of each other for their respective records of incompetence and alleged conspiratorial alliances with foreign forces to destabilize the nation. The other wants a new generation of politicians, who can represent the concerns of their region or age group.
It is a minor miracle that, after it all, Tunisia has made a democratic transition. To whom do we credit this to? Many American observers want to tip their hats to Ennahda, for being a moderate Islamist party that has played by the rules, unlike all others. But there are less altruistic reasons for Ennahda’s compromise: they sense they are in a position of weakness, and its leaders would rather maintain some degree of power than to lose it and be susceptible to another state-led purge.
Nidaa does not deserve much praise either: it has worked the fear of Tunisians to its advantage, cannibalizing the vote of other secular parties. Maybe it would be better to credit “civil society” in general: the quartet of organizations that started the national dialogue, down to the constant clusters of protesters across the country.
What we could conclude is that the major political forces see control of state institutions is the one legitimate way to gather power, and there are harsh consequences for not playing by the rules. These conditions are enough to create an equilibrium where democracy exists, though not necessarily one where there is consensus. And why should any serious observer expect consensus in four years’ time?
Modern Tunisia, though born in myth, was founded on unequal growth, unequal suppression and unequal levels of optimism and resentment. It took fifty years for the state to engender these problems. It would not be surprising if the state took fifty years to resolve them.