The Middle East Channel

The ‘Call for Tunisia’

On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia — a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia’s non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages
FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia — a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia’s non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion of former regime officials in future administrations. At a time when many of Egypt’s former regime officials loom in the shadows, and Yemen has struggled with the legacy of its provision of amnesty to the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia may once again take the lead in confronting a major political dilemma in semi-revolutionary change.

The Call for Tunisia features a broad spectrum of former regime officials together with secular liberals. The former regime officials, or RCDists (from the Constitutional Democratic Rally), were excluded from running in the last elections and see in the new initiative a chance to revive their political prospects. (There was no such cleansing of the actual government administrations — only positions in the Constituent Assembly). These officials and their supporters oftentimes criticize the current government as incompetent and unable to manage the complexity of government. They try to deflect criticisms of the rampant corruption and stasi-like police state of the past, by pointing to the (very real) progress achieved under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. They cite statistics on women’s rights, improvements in education, and infrastructure development, and they compare Tunisia with its neighbors in the Maghreb and throughout Africa. Their motives are clear — keep the good and throw out the bad of the former regime.

The liberal secularists who have joined the movement are as much opportunistic as survivalist. They see joining Essebsi’s party as the only possible way for non-Islamists to regain control of the country. They point to the fact that 60 percent of Tunisians voted for parties other than Ennahda in last October’s elections, but that these votes were spread across a multitude of minor parties. Ahmed Brahim, head of the left-wing, secular party Ettajdid, joined the movement, despite sharp opposition from his party of the activities of the RCD. These supporters understand that small parties with little funding cannot compete against larger, well sponsored parties. Their challenge will be to integrate their liberal values into what is at heart a conservative party.

Essebsi’s group emphasizes that unity among secularists, regardless of political disposition, is the only way to counter Ennahda, and if the secular parties do not line up behind them — Ennahda will continue to govern. They argue that they have the organization (presumably because of RCD remnants throughout the country) and courage to go one-on-one with the well-organized Islamist party. And it is difficult to argue with this point of view. It is not just that Essebsi’s group is (presumably) well-organized, but that the opposition parties are so completely dysfunctional. Apart from some minor parties in major cities, there are very few grassroots political movements capable of challenging Ennahda.

Ideologically, the Call for Tunisia provides a counter-balance to Ennahda through a clear articulation of what Tunisian society should look like. While Ennahda supporters talk about the extremism of Bourguiba/Ben Ali regarding Islamic practices (including banning the veil and a very liberal interpretation of Ramadan — not to mention the systematic torture and imprisonment of Islamists themselves), many Tunisians felt comfortable being Muslim under the former regime. It is fair to say that many (though certainly not all) Tunisians did not feel that their religion was under assault under the previous secular regime. Islamic scholarship in Tunisia over the past century has supported the modernist interpretations of Islam promulgated by the former regimes. And, with the rise in extremist activity across the country, many are sympathetic to the hard line the former dictators used against the Islamists — who are now seen as condoning violence and hurting the economy.

Ultimately, the main ideological advantage of the movement is the ability for it to cherry pick the success stories of Bourguiba and Ben Ali as a way to sway voters. In this regard, other secular parties have a more difficult time. Liberal secularists are easily branded as too Western or anti-Islamic. To many, they appear to have a problem with Tunisian traditions and mores. While liberal secular parties struggle to convey their sensibilities for free speech and women’s rights to voters, Essebsi’s party can run on the merits of the former regime — law and order, women’s rights, and progress and openness to the world through a moderate form of Islam.

Essebsi’s movement has scared both liberal secularists and Ennahda supporters alike.  A return of the crooked, corrupt, and cruel former regime is everything that they fought against — not just in the past 2 years, but in the last 30 years. While Ennahda will point to the abuses against Islam, and secular liberals will point to the harassment of human rights activists and infringements on freedom of expression, both will point to the ultimate failure of the Bourguiba/Ben Ali experiment to bring real progress to many parts of Tunisia. While visitors to Tunisia’s coastal areas can see the development and progress of the last 50 years, it takes only a few minutes to get to villages that remain poor, backwards, and lacking in any opportunities to progress. They will point to the promises of Ben Ali to provide education and work, even while the educational system declined and job opportunities dried up. They will point to the fact that closer relations with the west only brought tighter visa restrictions and low-wage jobs.

By announcing the formation of the Call for Tunisia 10 months before the elections, Essebsi will be opening the debate on the extent to which Tunisians want a return to the past or leap into the future. External events and political realities, such as the writing of the constitution, will give ample opportunity for the three sides to debate and defend their positions. For Essebsi’s part, much will depend on two things, his replacement as leader of the movement and the group’s ability to peel off supporters from liberal secularists and/or the coalition government.

At 86, Essebsi is not a viable candidate for president (if the Constituent Assembly opts for a presidential system, which it is likely to do). While other politicians have joined the movement, many of them are either unknowns to most people (Ettajdid’s Ahmed Brahim, for example) or too-closely linked to the former regime (like former Ben Ali foreign minister Kamel Morjane). Much will depend on whether a new figure will emerge. Some have pointed to Mustapha Nabli, who has links to the former regime, but spent the last 12 years at the World Bank prior to coming back after the revolution to lead the Tunisian Central Bank. He is well respected in international circles and has already engaged in fierce debate with the coalition government over the central bank’s independence, and as a result has received open calls for his sacking by President Marzouki himself. Others have cited Taieb Baccouche, a former labor and human rights leader, who most recently served with Essebsi as Minister of Education in the transition government. He has been making the rounds in Tunisian media on behalf of the Call.

Secondly, while there is likely built-in support for the Call for Tunisia among the wide network of former regime officials, the movement will have to look to other constituencies to counter Ennahda’s wide-ranging support. While many on the left will be loath to support any candidate linked to the former regime, assurances on civil and political rights could bring them into the fold. Some Ennahda voters may also be attracted to the group, many having voted for the Islamist party because of its stance on corruption rather than for the party’s values. But neither of these groups may be as important as Ennahda’s secular partners in government, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. Both parties have struggled to hold together, and many supporters are disenchanted by what they see as a giveaway to Ennahda by the party leaders on policy in return for political appointments in the government. Essebsi’s movement could draw away their support, or completely split the parties.

Already the CPR and Ennahda have proposed legislation that would limit RCD participation in any future government. While political activists in Tunisia have long regretted the relative immunity granted to the former regime officials, many Tunisians continue to place the blame firmly on Ben Ali and his family. Essebsi has capitalized on this sentiment by stating that these proposals are anti-democratic and would only further polarize a society that needs unity. Nevertheless, with control over the government and the assembly, the coalition could tighten the rules to make it difficult for the Call to field candidates.

As riots this month have shown, Tunisia remains a volatile country and many things could happen before the next elections. The Call for Tunisia, for good and for bad, is a product of Tunisian political culture of the last 50 years. While last year’s revolution was popular, it was hardly a referendum on post-independence Tunisia — rather it was a wakeup call to Tunisian leaders that things had to change. A matchup between Call for Tunisia and Ennahda in next March’s elections would provide exactly that referendum. The work for Essebsi’s movement will be able to convince Tunisians that they can keep the gains of Tunisia’s independence leaders while upholding the values of the revolution. For Tunisia’s secular left, the Call represents an opportunity to join a party that may have real traction with ordinary Tunisians, but also signifies a capitulation for what many have worked so hard to change. Like in Egypt, the rise of two conservative parties (the Islamists and the Call) is a disappointment to those who fought for human rights and civil liberties. At the same time, in this conservative society it is hardly surprising that the debate is characterized by what kind of conservatism Tunisians will choose between.

Erik Churchill is an analyst and development consultant based in Tunisia. He blogs about Tunisian politics at Kefteji.

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