Tunisia caught between fear and stability

Noureddine Jebnoun
19 Dec 2014

Tunisia might be making progress with elections, but internal political polarisation is reaching dangerous heights.

The Tunisian transition is perceived as exceptional in the light of the instability in the rest of the region: return of authoritarianism, spread of sectarian and ethnic violence, chaos and civil war. L Carl Brown recently praised the “Tunisian exception” for providing a “less hectic and less bloody revolutionary transition” in the Arab world.

But a closer look at Tunisian politics shows that the perceived exceptionalism of political developments in the country is somewhat overstated and necessitates a more nuanced analysis.

Political fatigue

Three years after Bouazizi’s immolation set off the Arab uprisings, Tunisia is living in the rhythm of elections. Most recently, parliamentary elections where held on October 26, followed by the first round of presidential elections. On December 21, Tunisia will have its presidential runoff between Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) and the incumbent interim President Moncef Marzouki. The outcome of these elections will provide the country with its first democratically elected permanent institutions.

But as much as the world is praising these elections, Tunisians do not seem as enthusiastic. While the number of registered voters surpassed 5 million out of more than 8.2 million Tunisians of voting age, barely 3.3 million turned up at the voting stations for the first round of the presidential elections. This indicates a low voter turnout particularly among youth, the most disenfranchised social group whose mobilisation was decisive in the fall of Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

This first round of the presidential elections mirrored the political fatigue and apathy of the Tunisian electorate whose confidence in the potential of democracy to generate positive outcomes has declined. This declining confidence was already observed in the parliamentary elections, which showed that Tunisians apparently have preference for a leader with “a strong hand” who is able to stabilise the country.

Presidential candidates and sensationalist media coverage instrumentalised this desire for stability, seeking to nurture Tunisians’ anxieties and maintain their fear of insecurity in order to affect their vote.

Haunted by an authoritarian past

The two presidential contenders seem to be promoting irreconcilable visions for the country’s future to the extent that it has become inconceivable for them to compete without missing an opportunity to stigmatise one another. In this context, the visibility of other candidates was reduced in the first round and the debate of ideas impoverished. Political pluralism bore the negative consequences.

As the election date approaches, media, business interests, and civil society actors have settled in this polarity. In fact, both candidates are sharing excessively passionate discourses. Marzouki travels across the country campaigning against the threat of Nidaa’s “hegemony” should its candidate win the presidency after the party’s victory in the October legislative elections. Marzouki tried to position himself as the bulwark against the return of the old regime’s tyrannical rule and its men. Ben Ali’s dark era is, indeed, far from being forgotten by many Tunisians, especially the Islamists.

Marzouki’s fear of authoritarian temptation has become an obsession. He blatantly warned that if his rival gets elected, “Tunisia risks a plunge into instability,” and strongly critisised the “old mindset” of the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime “that has not changed one iota”, blaming these relics for failing to learn from their mistakes. Although this narrative resonates positively among Tunisians who experienced systematic repression and marginalisation by the previous regime, it is worth noting that its rationale is problematic.

Standing as a rampart against the return of the old order is asserting that Tunisians are immature, civil society actors are weak, and youth are anesthetised. More than three years of rocky transition has demonstrated that sociopolitical activism is indeed a constant variable of Tunisian society and that the tutelage of a leader is not a prerequisite for maintaining democratic momentum.

Unconsciously, Marzouki made a mistake appropriating the status of the indispensible saviour of Tunisians from an ineluctable autocratic fate. His personification of the country’s political destiny risks jeopardising the embryonic and fragile democratic consolidation, which needs strong, reliable and accountable institutions rather than a strong leader.

Patriarchal management and Islamist aversion

Nidaa Tounes is more of a motley aggregation of leftist politicians, trade union leaders, businessmen, and “recycled” old regime figures than a political party per se. The ideological weight of each of these groups is unknown; the party has never held a national congress. The coexistence within the party is maintained by the patriarchal style of Essebsi who claims to follow in the footsteps of the late President Habib Bourguiba. The party benefited from the protest vote of segments of the population fearful of deteriorating security and standards of living, nostalgic for stability, and tired of futile political dissensions.

Yet, what cements these diverse groups is their shared rejection of political Islam and their attempt to counterbalance Ennahda. Nidaa Tounes positioned itself as a champion-protector of “national values”, resisting transnational Islamism. Moreover, Nidaa stresses the importance of restoring the “prestige of the state”, a controversial notion of a strong state led by a charismatic autocratic leader, a model that charecterised Bourguiba’s era.

Essebsi’s dismissal of Islamism was clear in his interview with RMC radio: “Those who voted for Mr Marzouki are Islamists, those who have managed to be on his side [are] … the leaders of Ennahda … the party that is more extremist [than Ennahda] … the Salafi jihadists and … the League for the Protection of the Revolution, who are all violent parties.” He added: “Unfortunately, there will be a division into two, the Islamists on one side and then all democrats and non-Islamists on the other.”

Hearing this reductionist and essentialist conception of democracy that depicts Islamism as undemocratic in nature is a deja-vu. It revives legitimate concerns and serious doubts about Essebsi’s ability to be an inclusive leader. This tendency to depict 1.1 million voters as religious extremists for their political preferences is a worrying signal about the country’s democratic future.

The real debate should overcome the simplistic partition of Tunisians between undemocratric Islamists and democratic non-Islamists, a superficial division that thrives on fear and stability.

The uprising for “freedom, justice, and dignity” accentuated Tunisians’ rejection of the status quo and call for real democratic change. This change will depend on the degree of proper institutionalisation of these aspirations.

Thus, whoever will be the future president has to be a “symbol” of the country’s “unity” as stipulated in Article 71 of the 2014 Constitution. He must be the guarantor of political diversity, compromise, citizen activism, tolerance, and legal protection of human rights from unchecked abuses of state security apparatus. He and the government must address corruption which has become another lethal form of violence – an endemic phenomenon that recently reached an alarming rate. He must focus on the ways and means of breaking the barriers to youth inclusion strongly affected by economic exclusion and address their socioeconomic integration through creative and tailored programmes that respond to their genuine needs.

Otherwise, more and more young Tunisians will become potential recruits for global jihad; or to paraphrase the 18th century French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan, the Tunisian revolution risks becoming yet another “revolution [that] devours its children”.

Dr Noureddine Jebnoun teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, DC. He previously served as an assistant professor of strategy and geopolitics at the National War College, Command and General Staff College, and National Defense Institute in Tunisia. He is the principal coeditor of Modern Middle East Authoritarianism: Roots, Ramifications, and Crisis.

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