Transitions

Unpleasantly Familiar Faces in Tunisia

At least three former officials of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary government have announced that they will be running in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 23. One of those former regime figures is Mondher Znaidi, a long-time minister in the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in the 2011 revolution. Znaidi, who ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

At least three former officials of Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary government have announced that they will be running in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 23.

One of those former regime figures is Mondher Znaidi, a long-time minister in the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in the 2011 revolution. Znaidi, who held several ministerial portfolios, ranging from transport to trade, was serving as minister of public health when the first protests broke out in Tunisia in December 2010. On Sept. 14, 2014, he returned from self-imposed exile in France and announced his intention to run for president.

Upon arrival, the ex-minister was met by crowds in Tunis-Carthage International Airport. One might have thought that they had come to express their disapproval of a man who was an integral part of a regime notorious for rampant corruption and political oppression — but they hadn’t. Instead they gave him a warm welcome.

They brandished signs with revealing slogans: "Mondher, you are a hero," "Mondher, you are the son of the people," and "We will sacrifice our lives and our blood for you, Mondher."

The Sept. 14 fanfare that accompanied Znaidi’s return brought back memories of similar moments in the Ben Ali era. Whenever the president returned from one of his foreign trips, the ruling party would pay people to show up and cheer Ben Ali on, and even provide them with the necessary slogans and placards. Unsurprisingly, the slogans that were heard the day of Znaidi’s return were very similar, if not identical, to those chanted on such occasions in the Ben Ali days. The former regime is creeping back not only through the aggressive return of its symbols but through its same ostentatious practices and display of popularity.

One week after he arrived, Znaidi officially presented his candidacy. He claimed that he had managed to collect as many as 50,000 signatures endorsing him — far above the 10,000 the Tunisian electoral law requires for presidential contenders.

The return of former regime figures to politics is not limited to the presidential race. Many of them have opted to found their own political parties or to run in the parliamentary election coming up on Oct. 26.

Nida Tounes is one of those parties created by the old guard. It was founded in 2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran politician who is also a candidate in the presidential race. Essebsi held numerous high-profile positions under Tunisia’s post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, and was involved to a lesser extent with the Ben Ali regime. (The photo above shows Essebsi speaking to the press in July.)

Nida Tounes, which presents itself as the alternative to Tunisia’s Islamist Party Ennahda movement that swept the October 2011 elections, is a heterogeneous party that brings together people of different political leanings, including leftists, centrists, and trade union activists, as well as members of the former ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD).

Yet Nida Tounes has recently been hit by a series of mass resignations. Critics of the party, including its recent defectors, blame it and its leaders for its lack of democratic spirit and for resorting to the same old practices of the past.

This should not come as surprise given the fact that the party is led and glued together by Essebsi, who is more of a grandfatherly autocrat than a democratic leader who can speak to the expectations of a relatively young Tunisian population. (The median age of Tunisia’s population was 31.4 years in 2014, according to the CIA World Factbook.) Just three years ago, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to rise up against many of the very same patterns of behavior that his party is now accused of reviving. The party was harshly criticized when it announced that it was considering putting Essebsi’s son at the head of its Tunis district electoral list. Tunisians who suffered for decades from the political and economic hegemony of families close to the regime have found themselves facing the old the cast of characters after a revolution that had called for equality, justice, and dignity.

Omar S’habou, one of the recent defectors from the party, said that one of the problems within Nida Tounes is its unilateral decision-making process that has prompted several mass resignations in its local branches. One of the many contested decisions made by the party’s central bureau was its choice of lawyer Abeda Kefi to head the electoral list in the northwestern governorate of El Kef. The members of the local branch said that they decided to resign in protest at Kefi’s nomination, which, they said, had been taken entirely without input from the grassroots.

Abeda Kefi is known for having represented Habib Ben Ali, alias Moncef Ben Ali, during the so-called Couscous Connection case in the late 1980s. Moncef Ben Ali, a brother of the president, was accused of involvement in a drug trafficking network between France, Tunisia, and the Netherlands. He was subsequently sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison by a French court. On a French TV news report in 1992, Kefi attempted to defend his client by telling French journalists that the case was nothing but an attempt by Tunisian Islamists in France to target the Ben Ali regime. After the revolution, Kefi remained faithful to the former regime, choosing, among other things, to serve as the defense lawyer of former officials accused of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising.

As recent events have shown, people like Kefi and Znaidi are by no means exceptions in the current electoral race in Tunisia. In the absence of a transitional justice law or any legal framework that will bring those who colluded with the former regime to justice, the threat of Tunisia sliding back into the hands of the old guard becomes more real every day.

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions, and tweets @AsmaGhribi. Read the rest of her blog posts here.

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