The election of Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi as the new President of Tunisia in a runoff election against incumbent President Moncef Marzouki has generated much controversy. For some, Essebsi’s victory appears as a message that Islamism is no longer prominent in Tunisia. For others, Essebsi’s rise to power, alongside the Nidaa Tounes party’s victory in legislative elections last month, is a dangerous sign of Tunisia’s return to the days of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country during the 2011 uprising.
Essebsi has distanced himself from Tunisia’s old regime. He has posed himself as a much needed, technocratic caretaker figure in Tunisia’s deeply polarized and economically troubled post-revolution scene. In his victory speech, he stated that he will be ‘President for all Tunisians’, dedicating his victory to the martyrs of Tunisia1. Essebsi added that ‘Tunisia has won today, democracy has won’, stressing the need to stay united2.
Ennahda: Stability and Danger
Tunisia is often praised as the major accomplishment of the Arab Spring. Consensus between the various political groups has been essential. The stance of the Islamist Ennahda movement, unlike its Egyptian counterpart, the Freedom and Justice Party, has been critical in consensus building.
Firstly, Ennahda entered into the coalition often denominated as Troika with two secular parties: the centre-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the social democratic Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (Ettakatol). Marzouki, the leader of the CPR, was nominated by Troika and elected President.
Compromise also proved essential in managing the instability and chaos brought about by the two political assassinations that took place in 2013. Following the assassination of Chokri Belaid, leader of the Democratic Patriots’ Movement, in February, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned from his position when he was unable to appoint a neutral, technocratic government, as his move was opposed by Ennahda. Ali Laarayedh, then Interior Minister, was appointed as Prime Minister, giving up significant ministerial posts to his coalition partners as well as independents. When the second assassination, that of Mohamed Brahmi, leader of the Popular Movement, took place in July, Prime Minister Laarayedh eventually resigned following months of unrest; a technocratic caretaker government was formed with Mehdi Jomaa appointed as Prime Minister.
However, the Ennahda party is blamed with the rise of Salafi groups in Tunisia. Both Belaid and Brahmi were suspected to be murdered by members of one of these groups, called Ansar al-Sharia, which is supportive of Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate. Although Ennahda has been in conflict with Salafis over the way in which they want to set up an Islamic society, considerable tolerance has been extended to them. Ennahda chose to condemn the violent elements of Salafi groups, but supported the recognition of groups that use legal, non-violent means. Although Ennahda might appear to be working to limit the radicalization of Salafi groups and their supporters, many secularists believe that the party is utilizing double discourse, and concealing its real intentions through moderate arguments in the official political scene. The murders of Belaid and Brahmi have only exacerbated these claims3.
Tunisia’s process of constitution building also proved tough. However, the Ennahda movement finally gave up on the inclusion of Sharia as the basis of the legal system in the constitution after strict opposition from secularist parties. A compromise was achieved when freedom of religion was guaranteed, but Islam was identified as the state religion, and certain references were made to Islam in the legal framework4.
In the run-up to the presidential election, Ennahda decided not to nominate a presidential candidate. Clearly, their motivations are not simple. The party maintains that it did not nominate a candidate because it did not want to extend its dominance over more state institutions. However, analysts have added that Ennahda is concerned that the people will get fed up with them, especially given discontent with the way the economy was managed. An Ennahda presidential candidate would have been highly contested, and the party did not want that to be displayed in election results5.
The Future of Tunisia’s Democracy
Tunisia’s future is far from certain. What will happen depends on a multitude of factors.
Essebsi and Marzouki’s election campaigns revolved around two points: the debate between Islamism and secularism, and the debate between the old regime’s authoritarianism versus the democratic nature of the new regime. Hard-line secularism was cast as a legacy of the old regime, in which widescale imprisonment of Islamists took place. Meanwhile, Essebsi branded Marzouki and Ennahda as extremists, in line with prevailing ideas that Salafi groups gained power during Ennahda’s term in office6. However, Essebsi cannot ignore that Ennahda is still a significant force in Tunisian politics; the party won 69 seats in the legislative election, and is the second biggest party in parliament.
This brings us to a second prominent question that remains. Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes won a plurality in the November legislative elections. However, the party only holds 86 of the 217 seats in parliament, and needs coalition partners to form a government. Who they decide to choose as partners will have a great impact on Tunisia’s upcoming political scene. A national coalition, between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda seems the solution looking at past developments; however the secular-Islamist dichotomy employed in election campaigns makes this unlikely. Secular parties are deeply fragmented; a difficult task is ahead of Nidaa Tounes7.
Essebsi must remember that although his movement and Presidential candidacy may have been supported as a broad secular coalition against Islamic extremists and their violent terror acts, a more prominent driver of the results has been the Troika administration’s failure in handling the economy. It appears that Tunisians have chosen Essebsi due to a desire for a strong leader who has the expertise to take care of the economy8.
More importantly, we must remember that turnout was 69 per cent for legislative and 59 per cent for the presidential election. A virtual youth boycott was the case in both elections. Many Tunisians do not have faith in the political process; they are not preoccupied with the polarized arena between secularists and Islamists, but want to see the changes promised by the Jasmine Revolution come to life. Recalling that turnout was 90 per cent for Tunisia’s first legislative election in 2011 shows the loss of faith in Tunisia’s new political system9.
Regarding claims that Nidaa Tounes’ domination of both the cabinet and presidential office will lead to a return to Ben Ali’s authoritarianism, we must remember that Essebsi served as a Prime Minister in the transitional government in 2011. That position was not free of controversy; he was protested for being unilaterally appointed, as well as having served in various roles, including Interior Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs during the reign of Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern Tunisia, and President of parliament during the Ben Ali era. Ennahda leader Rashid al-Ghannushi had even stated that ‘Tunisians doubt the credibility of the interim government’. Nonetheless, despite claims that the interim government was preparing to launch a coup d’etat if Ennahda was elected in the October 2011 legislative election, Essebsi stepped down from the position following the election10. Although he had proposed that elections might be delayed till a later date, they were held on time; Essebsi did not cling onto power.
Whatever we make of Tunisia’s secular versus Islamist, and old regime versus revolution debates, we must remember that cooperation and power sharing between Ennahda and secular parties are the reasons why we are not reporting on a Tunisian coup d’etat or a Tunisian civil war, but reporting on Tunisian elections today. Essebsi branded himself and his party as possessing the experience to take care of the economy and stabilize the country. Now, they must make the necessary arrangements to keep that promise; they will have to manage Tunisia’s polarized political debates in a way that does not infringe on the economy and work to rebuild the trust of disenchanted voters, especially Tunisia’s youth. This is an absolute necessity to maintain and ensure the future livelihood of Tunisia’s fragile democracy.