The Flowering of the Arab Spring: Understanding Tunisia’s election results | by Esam Al-Amin

by Nov 11, 2011Africa

tunisia_girlNow that Tunisia’s elections have passed – with just minor incidents – and the Islamist Ennahda party won the largest share of votes, the country waits for the constituent assembly to be formed, and to see what changes will be effected in Tunisian politics. It will prove to be an exciting time, as the three parties with most votes look towards a coalition, and expect to face serious challenges from within and without.

In early 1994, a small Islamic think tank affiliated with the University of South Florida (USF) planned an academic forum to host Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the main opposition party in Tunisia, Ennahda. The objective of this annual event was to give western academics and intellectuals a rare opportunity to engage an Islamically-oriented intellectual or political leader at a time when the political discourse was dominated by Samuel Huntington’s much-hyped clash of civilisations thesis. Shortly after the public announcement of the event, pro-Israeli groups and advocates led by Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson, the head of the local B’nai B’rith, and a small-time journalist for the local right-wing newspaper began a coordinated campaign to discredit the event and scare the university.

According to Arthur Lowrie, a former State Department official who was an adjunct professor at USF at the time, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups exerted enormous pressure on the State Department to rescind its visa to Ghannouchi two weeks after it was issued in London. Consequently the university had to cancel the event, despite the strong protests by more than two-dozen scholars and academics. As a result, a valuable encounter between western intellectuals and opinion makers on the one hand, and a major figure in the Islamic world on the other, was obstructed because of a foreign agenda of a small but powerful interest group. This episode foreshadowed the anti-intellectual movement in subsequent years that sought to limit the ability of Islamic groups and figures to contribute to the national dialogue, especially after 9/11.

Since that day in 1994, Ghannouchi has never been issued a visa to enter the United States, although he had been to the country several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, he was living in the United Kingdom after being granted political asylum and cleared by the British authorities of any links to violence. He had also won a defamation lawsuit in the UK against detractors and regime loyalists who accused him of fomenting violence and strife inside Tunisia.

Seventeen years later, Ghannouchi’s Islamically-oriented Ennahda movement won the elections in Tunisia with a commanding forty-two percent of the vote. In effect, it received three times as many seats as the next highest party. These elections were largely praised by all relevant parties and international observers as democratic, free, fair, and transparent.

But these free and fair elections could not have taken place without the popular revolution that erupted last 17 December in Sidi Bouzid following decades of repression and rampant corruption. It quickly spread throughout the country, ultimately culminating on 14 January when the long-time dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia.

Since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, the country has been ruled by a one-party system that imposed its autocratic version of strict secularism. But when Ben Ali took power in a bloodless coup in 1987, he treated the country to a brief period of political openness until the security apparatus cracked down on all political opposition, particularly Ennahda and other pro-democracy and human rights groups.

So who were the major contenders in these elections? What was the main platform of each party? How did each one fair in the end? What do the results mean for Tunisia? And what happens next?

On 23 October, Tunisians went to the polls for the first time since their revolution to elect a Constituent National Assembly (CNA) consisting of 217 seats, including eighteen representing more than one million expatriates living abroad, out of 11 million Tunisians. The main role of the CNA is to write a new constitution for Tunisia that embodies the democratic aspirations of the popular revolution.

There were more than ninety party lists as well as independents distributed over twenty-seven geographical districts around the country and six districts abroad, mainly in Europe. According to the Tunisian Independent Elections Commission, the voter turnout exceeded all estimates, as nearly ninety percent of all registered voters participated, with some waiting as long as four hours to cast their votes. Amidst the dozens of lists, there were actually four major contenders. But a win of nine percent of the votes by a newly-formed party with questionable leadership was a major surprise to all political observers in Tunisia. Here is a list of the election’s major winners and losers.

  1. Ennahda Party was the successor to the Tunisian Islamic Trend Movement that was once affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s and has been led by Ghannouchi, 70, since the mid 1970s. In 1989 it changed its name to Ennahda or Renaissance Party and declared its commitment to democracy and pluralism. The movement considers itself a moderate Islamic party concerned with the preservation of Tunisia’s identity as an Arab and Islamic nation. For much of the past decade it has called for a political model similar to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan. More recently, it has advocated the accommodation of liberal and secular-humanist values with Islamic principles, especially in social and economic spheres. It also favours a parliamentary system of government. After almost gaining a fifth of the vote in the 1989 elections, Ben Ali banned the movement and cracked down on its institutions, imprisoning around thirty thousand of its members over the span of two decades. As the main opposition group in the past three decades, Ennahda was well organised and known throughout the country. Its leaders were respected and admired not only in urban centres but also in rural areas. Consequently, in this election it won overwhelmingly in all districts but one, gaining 90 seats, including half the seats abroad.
  2. Congress for the Republic (CFR). Established in 2001, it has been led by Moncef Marzouki, 66, a charismatic physician and human rights advocate. The CFR is considered a leftist party that emphasises Arab nationalism and identity as well as mainly secular values. Moreover, it calls for public accommodation of moderate Islamic principles and groups. It also advocates for a presidential system with strong parliamentary powers. Marzouki is well-known for his fierce advocacy of human rights, democracy and transparency. CFR came in second in voting, receiving thirty seats across the country.
  3. Bloc (Takattol) for Labour and Liberties. Established in 1994 by progressive and leftist activists and professionals, Takattol rejected dictatorship and advocated for socialist and nationalist policies. Its leader is Mustafa Bin Jaafar, 71, who was named health minister in the cabinet appointed shortly after the revolution. Although very secular in its policies, it recognises the importance of Islam in society and has a moderate and accommodationist view on the inclusion of political Islam in public life. It gained twenty-one seats in the elections.
  4. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). Established in 1998, PDP was considered the main opposition party challenging the corrupt ruling party during the reign of Ben Ali. It advocated strict secular principles and was regarded as the main ideological nemesis of Ennahda. Its historical leader was Ahmad Nejib Chabbi, 67, a well known attorney and leftist politician. Since 2006 it has been led by Maya Jribi, 51, a biologist, human rights activist, and feminist with enormous political skills. During the campaign, PDP leaders challenged Ennahda and pledged to come first. However, it was crushed in the elections, receiving only seventeen seats. After the elections it conceded defeat and congratulated Ennahda, but vowed not to join any governing coalition and to remain in the opposition.
  5. Popular List (Al-Aridha Chabiyya). The elections result of this list was a complete surprise to all observers. This list, which has existed for only few months, was led by Al-Hashmi Al-Hamdi, the owner of a television satellite channel based in London and a former Ennahda member who broke with the group in the mid 1990s. Since then he has openly attacked Ennahda and worked closely with Ben Ali’s regime. His group gained nineteen seats in the elections.

Many political observers charge that this party was financed and supported by the remnants of the old regime and Ben Ali’s banned Constitutional Party. After announcing the results, the elections commission invalidated the seats of the Popular List in six districts, charging the party with elections violations, including bribery. The remaining seats were distributed over twenty other parties including tribal, liberal, communist, and other far-left parties.
Significantly, the main loser in the election was the coalition of eleven rigidly anti-Islamic secular parties and former communists under the Democratic Modernist Pole (DMP). The DMP could not garner more than five seats throughout the country.

The huge win by Ennahda, followed by CFR, represents a total break from the parties and political movements of the corrupt and repressive era of Ben Ali. The collective will of the Tunisian people as embodied by the results of this election was to empower the main groups that associated strongly with moderate Islamic principles and Arab-Islamic identity.

By choosing moderate political groups that were not corrupt or part of the old archaic political structure, the Tunisian people sent an unambiguous message that they want moderate Islamists and secularists to work together in establishing democratic governance and building a just socio-economic system, while preserving hard-won freedoms and liberties, as well as respecting human rights and the Arab-Islamic identity of Tunisia.

Upon winning the elections in convincing fashion, Ennahda gave assurances that it will not impose Islamic social and moral edicts on society, but rather intends to preserve the legal rights given to women with regards to personal status law. It also announced that it would not ban alcohol or bathing suits as its opponents had charged. The day after announcing the election results, Ghannouchi himself met with the leaders of Tunisia’s stock market to assure them of his party’s strong support for vigorous economic growth, especially in the tourism sector. His party’s platform calls for robust annual economic growth of eight percent.

Ennahda announced that its secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, 62, a former journalist and engineer by training, would be its candidate for prime minister. He pledged to form a national unity government within a month that will include as many of the elected parties as possible. At minimum, the three major winners with a commanding majority of 141 seats have pledged to work together for the future of Tunisia. Furthermore, in the spirit of reconciliation, Jebali announced that Ennahda’s candidate for interim president would be either Marzouki of CFR or Takattol’s Bin Jaafar.

The major challenges facing the next government are three-fold. Not only should Ennahda be able to form a unity government, but it should be an effective government that will be able to deliver to the common man and woman physical and economic security as well as public services at a moment of tremendous political turmoil and social change. Fortunately for the new government the economic challenge was softened this week when Qatar – a state that has been at the forefront of supporting the Arab Spring – pledged an immediate economic assistance package of 500 million dollars.

Simultaneously, the elected assembly must write a new constitution for Tunisia’s second republic within one year. Although the will of the Tunisian people was determined in this election by favouring a moderate Islamic movement and other moderate secular parties, translating this into a constitution that will yield a national consensus is a major undertaking and cannot be underestimated.

Perhaps the major immediate challenge facing the new government is the reaction of foreign powers, especially in the West, that for decades have been warning against the days when ‘the Islamists’ will be empowered.

The memory of the siege and boycott of Hamas following its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections is still very vivid. So far, the US administration and its European allies have had a wait-and-see attitude, despite the noise coming from neo-conservative, Zionist, and right-wing circles. In a period of two weeks, Israeli leaders Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni warned the West against the impending phenomenon of ‘radical Islamic groups’ taking charge throughout the Middle East and threatening Israel and western interests.

The same old Islamophobic voices that raised false alarms echoing Israeli-hyped fears over twenty years ago and poisoned the atmosphere between the West and moderate Islamic groups are at it again. The real question now is: have western political leaders learned anything during this time or are we about to initiate a predictable sequel to the clash of civilisations?

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