A New Test for Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

The Tunisian legislative elections held on October 26th have been applauded by the world as a great success for democracy amidst troubled times for the region. These are the second free elections that have tested Tunisia’s transition to democracy since the deposition of authoritarian ruler Zine El Abdine Ben Ali in January 2011 and the first ones since the new constitution was introduced last January. Despite the concerns for security and the heavy presence of the security personnel the turnouts were far higher than expected, showing that there is trust and care for the electoral process.

Image Courtesy of Malek Khadraoui ©2014

Image Courtesy of Malek Khadraoui ©2014

The Islamist party Ennahda failed to secure the predominant position it had gained in the previous elections and lost to its secular opponent: Nidaa Tounes, the party of 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi. The election results reflect the dissatisfaction of the people with the previous government’s failure to improve the standards of living and to reduce unemployment. In fact, many protest that the expectations of the revolution have so far remained unfulfilled. While there is a tendency in West to generally prize secularist victories, several issues should be kept in mind.

Firstly, the Essebsi’s party has some ties with the old regime both in its members and its structure. Essebsi himself served as minister of the interior, defence and foreign affairs under Habib Bourguiba, the country’s founding president, and was then parliamentary speaker under later deposed president Ben Ali. The party comprises a variety of political tendencies; amongst which are the ones of individuals associated with Ben Ali’s former RCD party. Indeed, officials from Ben Ali’s government were allowed to run in the election. Moreover, the party’s structure is more authoritarian than, for example, the one of Ennahda’s. Key decisions have often been made in a top-down fashion, such as the one of nominating Essebsi the candidate for the coming presidential elections. The personalistic character of the party could also be a source of concern since Essebsi’s age raises the question on whether such a diverse party could survive the death of its charismatic leader. With this respect, the prominent role of Essebsi’s son, Hafedh, could to foster conflict within the party if he appears to wanting to transform the party into a family business. These factors sound uncomfortably familiar in a region which has witnessed long lasting authoritarian regimes and whose transition to democracy could easily be compromised.

The different political forces within the party are in fact united by a strong opposition to the Ennahda, which is seen as retrogressive, uncultured and uncompromising. Such hostility leads us to the second issue. Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats in the Parliament but it did not win the overall majority, therefore an agreement needs to be reached among parties to form a coalition government. Nidaa Tounes will lead the ruling coalition and the parties it choses to ally with will have a key impact on the kinds of decisions the government will make over the next five years. The plans for the coalition are not clear yet but the party has declared that an alliance with Ennahda, which won 69 seats, would be “against its nature” and rejected the idea. If there is anything we have learned from the history of authoritarian regimes in Northern Africa is that the exclusion of all Islamic political forces from the country’s political life is dangerous as it creates the possibility of radicalisation and violence. While the major lesson was probably the one of Algeria, Ben Ali’s decision against legally recognising Ennahda in 1989 resulted in the radicalisation of parts of the Islamic movement. The violence that was triggered, including Islamist attacks on the party-state, was then followed by an even stronger repression in 1991 and 1992. Obviously, the situation now is much different: major steps have been made, Ennahda is now recognised and legal and can compete in a democracy like other parties. Yet, what is worrying in Nidaa Tounes’s hostility towards Ennahda is the fact that it is naively, or perhaps strategically, ignored the variety of forms of political Islam grouped under the umbrella term “Islamist”. Ennahda is defined “retrogressive, uncultured and uncompromising” because of its being an Islamist party, while in reality its political orientation is quite moderate and not resembling at all the extreme spheres of political Islam.[1] Such attitude risks to send the message that there should be no forms of political Islam in a democracy while one of the core principles of a democracy is the inclusion and fair competition of all political orientations present in the country.

The new government’s future concerns will be primarily related to the economy and national security but it will be important not to let these deflect attention from the still delicate process of political transition. Nidaa Tounes needs to shake off its authoritarian shadows in order to consolidate Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. It is also necessary to make sure no party is ostracised, as participation is less dangerous than exclusion. The eyes are now on Nidaa Tounes’s strategy for the formation of the coalition and for the Presidential elections, which will take place on November 23.

Hope is that Tunisia will succeed in providing an example to region on how transition from revolution can work out for the best.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/29/tunisian-election-result-secularism-islamism-nidaa-tounes-ennahda