Democracy Triumphs in Tunisia’s First Free Elections | by Stuart Schaar

by Nov 20, 2011Africa

Despite attempts to demonise Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, the Islamist party emerged as the most important in the elections held last month. Tunisia, where the Arab spring began, has shown what the ballot box can achieve.

The atmosphere was celebratory, almost like being at a carnival, on 23 October as 39,12,369 voters, or 56% of eligible citizens, lined up at polling places throughout the north African country
of Tunisia for as long as three hours to cast their ballots. The first uprising in the Arab Spring revolts had produced the country’s and the Arab world’s first free and fair elections for an assembly to write a new constitution and choose a government to run the country on an interim basis.
A specially created independent electoral commission had replaced the ministry of interior to run the elections and over 5,000 poll watchers from abroad along with 1,000 foreign journalists
and 2,000 Tunisian observers made certain that the elections would be fair and honest – and they largely were.

The Islamist Renaissance Party, Al-Nahda, organised 7,000 of its own people to monitor the voting in every polling place throughout the country. Overseas, 2,02,177 Tunisians flocked to vote at their embassies and consulates. After voting, citizens held up their black-inked finger to show off their civic pride. Others wrapped themselves in Tunisian flags and paraded through towns and villages.

A variety of secular, regional, and special interest parties, though divided, won nearly 60% of assembly seats, while Al-Nahda scored the highest, winning 90 of the assembly’s 217 seats (or 41.47%) and 36.4% of the popular vote.1 In order to govern, the Islamists will most likely form an alliance with two left of centre parties who will make their own demands and act as a safeguard to preserve the many gains, including the abolishment of polygamy, that Tunisians have achieved since their independence from France in 1956. The first of these parties, the Congress for the
Republic (CPR), with 30 seats (13.82%), led by Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist and perpetual opponent of the deposed dictator, Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, has publicly demanded control of the ministry of interior in order to reform the nation’s police force and security apparatus and wants the interim government to hold on to power for three years, instead of one year proposed by the post-revolutionary interim government whose functions will end when the new government is installed.

Importance of Interior Ministry
In north African history some of the most intense political squabbles have revolved around who controls the interior ministry. The CPR will have to fight hard to get that post, for whoever heads that ministry maintains power over one of the major coercive forces of the state. Al-Nahda may not be willing to give up the post readily and the outcome of that struggle will tell us a great deal about how much the party is willing to concede to make coalition politics work.

Mustapha Ben Jafaar, the leader of Ettakadol, or the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL), with 21 seats (9.68%), has made it known that he would accept the presidency of the
assembly as part of an alliance deal. Prominent French political leaders have supported him in his bid to head that body, which may or may not hurt his chances for success.

Marzouki, however, may have the same ambition, since he proclaimed upon arriving back to Tunisia from years of French exile that he wanted to be president of the country. Many feminists and left-of-centre Tunisians who I spoke to after the elections took place would like to see a secular alliance form in the assembly to prevent Al-Nahda from controlling the government.

They oppose the formation of any coalition with the Islamists. This does not seem possible, since both the CPR and the FDTL leadership refused to demonise the Islamists during the campaign and made it clear that they wanted Al-Nahda to be accepted as a major political force in the country.

This position most likely contributed to their electoral gains, since the population, having undergone extreme trauma during and after the Arab Spring revolt, does not seem to want confrontational politics and sent a message that they desire a transitional government based on consensus.

The popular will gave Al-Nahda victory in every circumscription of the country and 50% of assembly seats in voting overseas. They remain the political force to contend with in the country.  Another party, the Progressives Democratic Party (PDP) led by the lawyer, Ahmed Najib Chebbi, had demonised Al-Nahda late in the campaign, expecting that his party’s high scores in polls taken before the election reflected real strength. To everyone’s surprise, the PDP came in fifth with 17 assembly seats (7.83%). The polls, conducted by phone with 1,034 respondents on 22-24 September, were wrong on almost every count, giving the Islamists 25% of the vote. In ex-dictatorships people polled maintain extreme discretion, as if the old order still existed in which no one dared to speak the truth for fear of police retribution.2 This lacklustre result disappointed the PDP since it had the support of the Tunisian equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce, UTICA, and
the country’s business elite. With lavish funds to spend, Chebbi launched an expensive campaign that backfired. His demonisation of Al-Nahda turned many voters away from his party.

The Popular Petition Party, which did not score at all on the pre-election polls, surprised most people by winning 19 seats (or 8.76% of the total). Its leader based in London, Hachmi Hamdi, a former luminary  of Al-Ittijah Al Islami, a precursor of Al-Nahda, and later a confidant of Ben Ali, campaigned from the UK by means of a private television channel that he owns. Beaming into Tunisia ceaselessly during the campaign, he delivered a populist message aimed at the poorest Tunisians, promising that he would fight to reduce the price of a loaf of bread from 250 millimes
to 100 millimes and give free healthcare for all, without saying where he would find the money to execute his plans.

Rumours began spreading that Hamdi used the networks of the ex-ruling party, the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally), to win his seats. The election commission disqualified six victors from his party, including a Tunisian living in France who won despite the fact that he had been a prominent member of the ex-dictator’s ruling party, 14,000 of whom (out of 20,00,000 members) were barred by the commission from running in the elections.

Hamdi’s hometown, Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the revolution where Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself on 10 December 2010, and sparked the revolt, rioted when news reached them that their votes for their favourite son were null and void. This was the only instance of serious electoral violence in the country.

Al-Nahda’s Approach
Al-Nahda has made claims on the prime minister’s office for its Secretary General, Hamadi Jebali, a conciliator by nature, and one of the architects of the party’s strong showing. Jebali spent 16 years in Ben Ali’s prisons, 10 of them in solitary confinement. Once liberated and after Ben Ali fled the country, the Al-Nahda leader made the rounds of political figures in the Tunisian opposition, asking their advice about how to proceed. I spoke with some of his interlocutors during this past summer and they all were impressed with his genuine interest in hearing their opinions.

One of them recommended that the party follow the AKP (Justice and Development Party) Islamist Party’s model in Turkey and allow for a clear division of religion and state. I was assured that Jabali paid great attention to the discussion that followed. Throughout the campaign and after the elections, he and the party’s titular head, Rachid Gennouchi, embarked on a media blitz to assure opponents that they need not fear that the party would turn Tunisia into a medieval theocracy. They already had issued issued a 250-page programme which promised not to amend the personal status laws (which gave Tunisian women a higher legal status than most other Arab women enjoy), enforce a dress code for women or beards for men, or change the direction of Tunisian capitalism, claiming that they would encourage foreign investment from western and west Asian investors.

For the tourism sector they pledged to allow bars to serve foreign tourists alcohol and promised not to enforce dress codes. That surprised me, since in many Tunisian resorts, European women parade topless openly in public view on the beaches. I wonder whether Al-Nahda is going to permit that transgression to continue. On 29 October Gannouchi appeared for more than an hour on Arabic television for a hard-hitting interview in which he again attempted to calm the fears of those who opposed his party. The man had spent over 20 years living in the United Kingdom in exile. His daughter grew up there and speaks perfect English and has served at times as his spokesperson. While living overseas he has had influence over the political direction of the KPD Party in

In many meetings with their leaders he has counselled moderation in order that they could win and keep power. A violent bent of his movement in its early years has, through exile, imprisonment
and torture, been tempered by a desire to win power through the ballot box.

Achievement of Arab Spring
The Arab Spring, with its non-violent beginnings in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrated that civil disobedience and solidarities across class lines could bring down dictators and open up new possibilities never before dreamed of. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the movement. In the minds of many Arabs the ballot box in fair and free elections can now accomplish more than suicide bombers. The trend began much earlier as masses of people in the Muslim world started turning against Al Qaida because their tactics killed more Muslims than the “enemy” westerners. It took the Arab Spring movement to prove that there was an alternative way to change. Sit-ins, mass demonstrations, hunger strikes, participating in fair and free elections were
other means that could work to foster meaningful change. Tunisia has demonstrated that this is possible.

Many problems remain though. Tunisia’s economy has stagnated because of the perceived and real turmoil in the country. Tourism has fallen by 60%; investments from abroad and within the
country have come to a standstill, although the head of the national bank expects growth of about 2.5% by next year as donors and investors return. Yet, to satisfy the demands for jobs of 3,00,000 unemployed university graduates and to equalise the gaps between the wealthier coastal population and those long neglected in the interior, it is estimated that the country needs to grow by about 7% yearly.

Needed transformations cannot be accomplished quickly, but probably need to be planned out over the next one or two decades. Here Turkey can serve as a model, since that country also had major discrepancies between the populations of industrial Istanbul and the agricultural and backwards interior. Over the past decade the Turks have built an economy that is now growing by 10% yearly and have diversified to the point that major industries have been established throughout the interior of the country, giving people hope that their lives will improve dramatically.

The consistently impressive electoral results of the Turkish KPD Party reflect this new reality. The close relations between Gannouchi and the Turkish Islamist leadership should facilitate investments by Ankara in decentralised industrial ventures in rural Tunisia. The first stage of Tunisian development under presidents Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali improved the lives of many who lived on the coast. The next stage has to attend to the needs of the poor, many of whom live on less than $2 per day. If Al-Nahda can mobilise that population the way they mobilised voters in this election, Tunisia’s future may be brighter than its critics realise.

Importance of Islam

That organisation goes deep into Tunisian society. I spoke to a man in a Tunis bar after the elections and asked him whom he voted for. “Al-Nahda”, he answered. I asked him how someone who imbibes so freely can vote for an Islamist Party. Without missing a beat he told me that he had been jailed by Ben Ali for five years and during that time the only organisation that gave his family money was Al-Nahda.

The party while underground established networks of social aid that kept many poor families alive. There is one final item of great importance that worked in Al-Nahda’s favour. All the secular dictatorial reformers, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey or Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali in Tunisia, relegated the Islamic religion to the back-burner, in effect depriving their populations of their very souls. Simply stated, Islam permeates Muslim societies. When you learn Arabic, you are told that you must say inshallah (if god wills) every time that you say that something will happen in the future. It is a grave mistake if you do not do it. The religion permeates daily life and has never died out except for a small minority of the population.

You cannot find many atheists in society. God permeates the language and the culture. Islam defines Tunisian identity as it does Moroccan, Egyptian, and so on. When left free a sizeable portion of the population will chose an Islamic party over others, because it represents who they are. This feeling has not changed over the years. What has changed is a new ability to express these feelings and emotions through the ballot box. Tunisia has become a trendsetter, so we should expect similar results in the months and years to come in neighbouring countries.

The positive aspect of this change lies in its non-violent character. This may be a portent of great promise rather than irrational fear.

1 The final voting results can be found at the Arabic website of the independent electoral commission. The Tunisian French daily newspaper, Le Temps on 28 October 2011 also published official results.
2 La Presse de Tunisie published pre-electoral polling results on 3 November 2011.

Stuart Schaar () is professor emeritus of Middle East and North African history, Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He lives in Rabat, Morocco where he teaches US university undergraduates studying abroad. His co-authored Middle East and Islamic World Reader published by Grove Press, NY will be out next year in a new revised edition. The author was in Tunisia during the elections.

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