– Democracy Triumphs in Tunisia’s First Free Elections (Stuart Schaar, City University of New York)

By Stuart Schaar*

The atmosphere was celebratory, almost like my being at a carnival, on October 23 as 3,912,369 voters, or 56% of eligible citizens, lined up at polling places throughout the North African country of Tunisiafor as much as 3 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 chose 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, organized 7,000 of its own people to monitor the voting in every polling place throughout the country. Overseas 202,177 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 sixty per cent 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 join with two left of center 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 Francein 1956. The first of these parties, The Congress for the Republic (CPR), with 30 seats (13.82%), led by Dr. 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. 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 the post up 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 Work and Liberty (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 toTunisia from years of French exile that he wanted to be president of the country.

Many feminists and left-of-center 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 doesn’t seem possible, since both the CPR and the FDTL leadership refused to demonize 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 Democratic Progressives (PDP) led by the lawyer, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, had demonized 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 September 22-24, 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 lackluster 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 demonization 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 confident of Ben Ali, campaigned from the UK by means of a private television channel that he owns. Beaming intoTunisia 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 and give free health care for all, without saying where he would find the money to execute his plans. Rumors began spreading that Hamdi used the networks of the ex-ruling party, the RCD, to win his seats. The election commission disqualified 6 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 2,000,000 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 December 10, 2010, and sparked the revolt, rioted when news reached them that their votes for their favorite son were null and void. This was the only instance of serious electoral violence in the country.

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, ten 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 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 a 250 page program which promised not to amend the personal status laws, which gave Tunisian women a higher legal status than most other Arab women enjoy, nor enforce a dress code for women or beards for men, nor would they change the direction of Tunisian capitalism, claiming that they would encourage foreign investment from Western and Middle East 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 openly in public view on the beaches topless. I wonder whether Al-Nahda is going to permit that transgression to continue.

On October 29 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 theUKin 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 AKP Party inTurkey. In many meetings with their leaders he has counseled 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.

The Arab Spring, with its non-violent beginnings in Tunisiaand 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 Arab Spring 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-Qaeda 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 300,000 unemployed university graduates and to equalize 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. HereTurkeycan serve as a model, since that country also had major discrepancies between the populations of industrialIstanbuland 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 consistent impressive electoral results of the Turkish AKP Party reflect this new reality. The close relations between Gannouchi and the Turkish Islamist leadership should facilitate investments byAnkarain decentralized industrial ventures in ruralTunisia. 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 needs to attend to the needs of the poor, many of whom live on less then two US dollars per day. If Al-Nahda can mobilize that population the way they mobilized voters in this election,Tunisia’s future may be brighter than its critics realize.

That organization goes deep into Tunisian society. I spoke to a man in aTunis 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 5 years and during that time the only organization that gave his family money was Al-Nahda. The party while underground established networks of social aid that kept many poor families alive. There lies a wonderful PHD thesis topic, which might reveal the social aid that Al-Nahda provided to gain an electoral following.

There’s one final item of great importance that worked in Al-Nahda’s favor. All the secular dictatorial reformers, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, 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 Insha’allah (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 can not find many atheists in the 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 trend setter, so we should expect similar results in the months and years to come in neighboring 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.

* Professor Emeritus of Middle East and North African History, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He lives in Rabat, Moroccowhere 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.

[1] The final voting results can be found at the Arabic web site of the independent electoral commission. The Tunisian French daily newspaper, Le Temps on October 28, 2011 also published official results.

[2] La Presse de Tunisie published pre-electoral polling results on November 3, 2011.

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