The Middle East Channel

Suspicion and strategy in free Tunisia

Walls across this country where the Arab Spring began display a dramatic red calendar with an image of joined hands above the phrase “Tunis Hurra”– Free Tunisia. The image reflects more aspiration than reality. Tunisians may have freed themselves from a dictator, but they are not holding hands. Economic stagnation, pent up social demands, and ...

Top: AFP/Getty Images, Text photos: Christopher Alexander
Top: AFP/Getty Images, Text photos: Christopher Alexander

Walls across this country where the Arab Spring began display a dramatic red calendar with an image of joined hands above the phrase “Tunis Hurra”– Free Tunisia. The image reflects more aspiration than reality. Tunisians may have freed themselves from a dictator, but they are not holding hands. Economic stagnation, pent up social demands, and a combination of political and cultural tensions are generating deep suspicion and anxiety across the country. The country which began the Arab spring and has arguably advanced the farthest toward a democratic transition today faces deep challenges.

After former President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali and his family fled the country on January 14 in the face of a massive popular uprising, Tunisia’s interim government in March decided to begin the country’s democratic transition with elections for a constituent assembly rather than immediately select a new president. The elected assembly will appoint a new interim president, act as an interim legislature, and — most importantly — write a new constitution. Once voters ratify that constitution, they will go to the polls again to elect a new legislature and president. 

This sequence came from the High Commission for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, of Political Reform, and Democratic Transition — a body made up of political parties, civil society organizations, and influential personalities that has become the chief architect of political reform in Tunisia. The High Commission wanted to reform the constitution first in order to avoid the possibility of an elected president who might use an undemocratic constitution to become a new dictator (a model which is now looked to with some envy by many Egyptians).

The process initially commanded widespread support, but has recently encountered turbulence. The government initially scheduled the constituent assembly elections for July 24. In late May, however, the electoral commission announced its intention to delay the vote because it needs more time to ensure that it will be fair and credible. After several days of heated debate, the interim prime minister, Beji Caid Sebsi, announced that the vote will take place on October 23.   Most of the country’s 93 political parties support the delay, but it extends and intensifies the anxious uncertainty that has reigned in the country since Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on January 14. 

The stakes in this first election are high. Many Tunisians believe that the October vote will provide a preview of the likely outcome when they go back to the polls to elect a president and a legislature. More importantly, the fact that the assembly will rewrite the constitution forces Tunisians to confront profound questions about Tunisia’s political values and identity. Many people, and not just Islamists, believe that Tunisian politics has been dominated since independence by a privileged caste of Francophone elites, educated in European or European-style institutions, whose lives do not look very much like the lives of the majority of the population. These elites — in both the government and the opposition parties — share an interest in maintaining a closed, self-serving political game that traffics in the language of democracy and development but that does little to address the needs of real people. Their critics resent those elites who they view as smugly dismissive of the values of the majority of the population.

Many secular Tunisians fear that a strong showing by the Islamist Nahdha Party and its allies will result in a constitution that makes it easier for Islamists to chip away at individual liberties.  Nahdha leaders insist that they do not want to dominate the assembly and that they support democracy, individual freedom, and women’s rights. In the absence of any legal safeguard, however, many secularists are not ready to take Nahdha at its word. They accuse Nahdha of saying different things to different audiences and refusing to accept a clear distinction between religious and political spheres.

Many socially conservative Tunisians — and it is important to say that they are not all Islamists — also express concerns about individual liberties. They fear that an assembly dominated by secular left politicians will craft a constitution that limits their right to practice their faith in their private lives. “If our secular left was like the left in the United States, we wouldn’t be so worried,” one Nahdha leader commented. “But they’re not. They are influenced and supported by the secular left in France. How do we know that they won’t invoke European notions of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ to follow France’s example and ban the veil?”

The beginning of the electoral campaign has accentuated these fears and suspicions. The new electoral code creates strong incentives for coalition-building, and three camps are taking shape. Parties on the far left recently formed a “democratic modernist pole.” The other two camps are dominated by Nahdha and by the center-left Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP). Recent polls show that Nahdha and the PDP are the two most popular parties among the minority of Tunisians who have decided how they will vote in October. Both parties enjoy name recognition and credibility as longtime opponents of the former regime. Both have well-known leaders and they have done more than the other parties to expand their organizations across the country. Both parties are rumored to receive substantial funding from like-minded organizations outside Tunisia. 

Poll numbers have shifted in recent weeks, but both Nahdha and the PDP poll in at 30 percent or less. Unless the numbers change dramatically, neither party is likely to dominate the constituent assembly by itself. Consequently, the fight for allies is on and that fight is generating rhetoric and tactics that reinforce popular fears and stereotypes. Concerned about the possible consequences of leaving fundamental issues to a body that might contain a strong Islamist contingent, some on the left suggested that the High Commission, rather than the constituent assembly, should reform the constitution. When that proposition failed, several left figures proposed a set of statements that lay out fundamental principles that all the parties must accept in the elections. Nahdha argues that these initiatives, along with the delay in the elections, reveal the left’s mistrust of the Tunisian people and its willingness to circumvent democratic politics. Left parties have ramped up their rhetoric about the importance of defending Tunisia’s modern and progressive values in ways that emphasize the cultural divide between them and the Islamists.

Much of this rhetoric is strategic. Away from the microphones, many politicians on the left and the right say that they do not believe the other camp can dominate the assembly. But they need to rally their troops in what could be a close race with a rough third on the right led by Nahdha, another rough third on the far left led by the democratic-modernist pole, and a rough third in the middle around the PDP. The combined strength of the PDP and the far left parties probably gives the center-left an advantage. However, 60 percent of the population has yet to decide how it will vote. Whether the assembly tilts center-left or center-right will depend largely on how that undecided vote breaks down and on the composition of electoral alliances between the major parties and the large stable of new ones.

Many of today’s parties will not survive the October test. As one party leader put it, “We will have to start a graveyard for parties once the October vote is done.” Some will simply close down; others will blend with larger parties. Nahdha itself will likely change under the pressure of competition. But this is a necessary part of the transition to a more consolidated field of options for Tunisian voters when they elect their first democratic government. 

Tunisia continues to be the region’s best hope for a democratic transition in the near future. Tunisians know that others are watching them closely. Much of their contemporary anxiety is a product of uncertainty — economic and political. Tunisians are accustomed to the former, but the latter is a new thing. How they manage competition under uncertainty over the next four months could be more important over the long run than the specific outcome on October 23. 

Christopher Alexander is Davidson College’s McGee director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, an associate professor of political science, and author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.

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