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Michael Jansen: Tunisia’s triumph
November 07, 2014
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Campaigning in Tunisia’s presidential election began last week with secular candidate Beji Caid Essebsi seen as the frontrunner following the victory of his Nidaa Tounes party in last month’s parliamentary poll.

There are 27 candidates in the presidential race, the first ever for Tunisia, which will be decided on Nov.23. Other candidates include incumbent Moncef Marzouki and Kulthoum Kannou, a female magistrate, as well as former ministers.

Nidaa Tounes won 85 of the 217 seats in the legislature, defeating the country’s fundamentalist Ennahda which secured 69 and, admitted defeat. As it lacks a majority, Nidaa Tounes has to form a coalition with smaller parties.  

Essebsi, 87, is a survivor from the post-independence authoritarian regime ousted during the 2010-11 uprising that sparked the Arab Spring. He served as minister of defence, interior and foreign affairs, and speaker of parliament. 

His party is a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists, and members of the old ruling Destour party, established by “father of the people” Habib Bourguiba, who held power from independence in 1956 until 1987 when he was overthrown by Zine Al Abedin Ben Ali, the first Arab leader driven from office by people power.

To limit the powers of the president, the new constitution, adopted last January, gives authority to the executive prime minister. 

Tunisians chose the secular Nidaa Tounes because Ennahda, the Tunisian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to deliver the demands of the majority of Tunisians who are now prepared to give the opposition a chance. Annahda’s approach to defeat diametrically opposed that of the Egyptian Brotherhood which continues to contest the removal of President Muhammad Mursi, a movement stalward, in July 2013.

The Brotherhood’s constant protests and bouts of violence have alienated millions of Egyptians and prompted Mursi’s successors to crack down hard on any and all dissent. This may well have warned Ennahda against opting for protest over its loss of the parliamentary election. The party has not put a candidate forward for the presidency.

Nidaa Tounes was established in June 2012 by Essebsi who styled himself as a “second Bourguiba” – since Bourguiba had remained popular until his removal by Ben Ali. Nidaa is not an ideological party but a coalition that embraces a wide range of views.

Nidaa’s secretary general Al Tayyeb Al Bakoush is a senior figure in the Tunisian General Labour Union. Nidaa’s membership, which includes businessmen as well as former officials, is estimated at 100,000. During the parliamentary campaign, Nidaa promoted itself as the main alternative to the fundamentalists, Ennahda and the ultra-conservative Salafis.

Ennahda had been the largest party in the constituent assembly after winning 41 per cent of seats in 2011 following the fall of Ben Ali.

Ennadha then formed a coalition government with two secular parties, the Democratic Forum for Labour and the Liberties Party. This was an uneasy partnership because of Ennahda’s fundamentalist agenda. Ennahda was also targeted for failing to impose security after the murders of two opposition figures, Chokri Belaid and Muhammad Brahimi. Following mass protests against the assassinations Ennahda handed over authority to a transitional government.

Once it came under challenge, Ennahda’s leadership agreed to cede power because its leadership is more progressive than that of other Arab fundamentalist parties. Ennadha leader Rashid Ghannouchi is an intellectual and leading Islamic thinker, who was imprisoned twice in his homeland and moved to Europe until 1988 where he remained until the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011. During his exile, he travelled around the world. His admiring biographer, Palestinian thinker Azzam Tamimi, has called him a democratic fundamentalist. 

However, Ghannouchi is up against undemocratic fundamentalists who seek to seize power through violent means. Among these extremists are the jihadis who killed Brahimi and Belaid. Many Tunisians accused Ennahda of colluding with the extremists seeking to eliminate secular opponents.

In a post-parliamentary poll interview with Asharq Al Awsat, Ghannouchi called for the formation of a government of national unity and the nomination of a consensus candidate for the presidency. He also urged Nidaa to “conduct their affairs according to democratic norms,” reminding Tunisians that elections under Ben Ali were far from free and fair and that Tunisia is still in a transitional phase.

“Tunisia has not completely turned the page on tyranny and rigged elections, swearing allegiance to a dictator, and depriving Tunisian nationals of their right to freedom of choice. Our goal is to ensure that democracy triumphs over chaos and dreams of coup d’etat,” he stated.

While authoritarian “old regime” figures in Nidaa do remain a threat to democracy in Tunisia, the main danger is posed by the jihadis who seek to impose their will on society and state. Partially contained at home, at least 3,000 Tunisian jihadis have migrated to Syria to fight against the government and now against the US-led anti-ISIS campaign. By exporting them, Tunisia is, for the time being, postponing the reckoning with the jihadis who could wreak havoc when they return home. 

However, so far, the democratic experiment in Tunisia has progressed and is an example to other countries in the Arab world. Tunisia has shown that democracy is possible as long as the main actors on the political stage adopt the rule of law and understand that losers in free and fair elections must cede power to winners without contestation.

Tunisia has also demonstrated that the secular opposition can unite and win elections and that the fundamentalist mainstream can adopt a progressive stand. Tunisia has now taken over from Turkey as the model other states can adopt, but as Ghannouchi said, Tunisia remains in the transition phase. Nothing is guaranteed.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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