Tunisians back new faces in parliamentary polls

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Article Summary
The city of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Jasmine Revolution, has emerged as a barometer of Tunisia's progress in the decade following the toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Omar and Youssef, aged 9 and 10, train daily at a gleaming Olympic-size pool in Sidi Bouzid. “We want to compete in the Olympics, that is our dream,” said Youssef, his arm slung over the younger boy as they emerged from the water. It's a startling scene. The gritty rural backwater is where Mohammed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire Dec. 17, 2010, to protest discrimination and corruption under Tunisia’s brutal dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bouazizi died a few weeks later, a tragedy that is credited with sparking Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, and many say the Arab Spring. 

Sidi Bouzid has since emerged as something of a barometer for Tunisia’s progress, as other Arab countries swept up by the uprisings have lapsed back into authoritarianism and violence.

On Sunday, the town’s people will join millions of fellow Tunisians to deliver their verdict in nationwide parliamentary elections, its most unpredictable race to date and the second since the North African country began electing its leaders after Ben Ali’s fall.

Judging by the results of the first round of presidential elections held Sept. 15, incumbents are hanging on to their seats by a thread. That vote was a crushing rebuke of the country’s governing coalition led by pro-secular Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the pro-Islamist Ennahda party, which have shared power since 2014 but failed to improve standards of living. Kais Saied, a conservative law professor hailed for probity, and Nabil Karoui, a jailed media magnate, came first and second, respectively, with Ennahda’s candidate trailing at a distant third and Chahed a humiliating eighth. Leftists fared even worse.

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In the legislative race, more than 1,500 lists — many led by little-known independents — are competing in 33 districts in Tunisia and abroad. With the threshold for winning seats in parliament set at 3%, independents are expected to mirror their success in the 2016 municipal elections. 

Leaked data from some recent opinion polls suggest that the parliamentary elections, which are far more consequential than the presidential poll by virtue of the power yielded by the prime minister and the Cabinet, but are exciting far less interest, will yield a similar picture: a rejection of the status quo.

Karoui’s newly formed Qalb Tounes, or Heart of Tunis, is in the lead with roughly 20%, some six points ahead of Ennahda. The tycoon has been behind bars since Aug. 23 on money laundering and tax evasion charges brought two years ago and for which he has not yet been convicted. This is proof, his lieutenants say, that his jailing was a cynical ploy to keep him from winning. But if anything it has helped him play the victim card while his glamorous wife, Salwa, stumps on his behalf.

Greased by Karoui's deep pockets and propped up by his channel, the popular Nessma TV, Qalb Tounes is now furiously wooing some 55% of voters who stayed away in the presidential race, a further sign of Tunisians’ deepening disgust with politics. In the 2014 presidential election, some 63% of voters cast their ballots.

The Dignity Coalition, led by Seifeddine Makhlouf, a lawyer whose clients include Islamist militants, may pull in a surprise second, according to one poll. The findings cannot be shared with the public under Tunisia’s law. But no single party is set to win the 109 seats that are needed to rule alone in the 217-seat legislature. This means that Tunisia will be governed by another potentially messy coalition, making it even less probable that the new parliament can agree on the formation of a constitutional court, among a host of other pressing business.

The failure to establish a constitutional court amid bickering over its composition has created a legal vacuum, leaving the country ill-equipped with the sort of dilemma posed by Karoui’s imprisonment. 

Fresh drama was injected into the elections when Al-Monitor revealed Oct. 1 that an individual who claimed to be acting on Karoui’s behalf had signed a million-dollar contract with Montreal-based Dickens & Madson to help the Tunisian businessman boost his electoral fortunes by securing meetings with President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, among others. Karoui’s party issued a statement yesterday denying any connection to the company and the contract, and vowed to pursue legal action, though it did not specify against whom.

The lobbying records were published on the Justice Department’s website in keeping with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) regulations. Karoui’s rivals charge that he must be disqualified under Tunisia’s electoral laws for receiving foreign support. Few Tunisians had heard of FARA until Al-Monitor’s story.

A US government official speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “It is the responsibility of FARA registrants to ensure the accuracy of the filings that they provide to the FARA Unit.” The official added, “The US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations will investigate filings that are believed to be false of misleading.” The official declined to either confirm or deny whether any such investigation was taking place.

Dickens & Madson President Ari Ben-Menashe stood by his filing with the Department of Justice in an interview with Al-Monitor.

Western diplomats have bigger worries. Will the new president and government stick with Tunisia’s deal with the International Monetary Fund and push through with urgently needed structural reforms? And what if a coalition proves impossible to form? Would al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) seek to exploit the vacuum? The fears are understandable but may be overblown.

Amid the sea of complaints, many Tunisians remain fiercely proud of their democracy, saying they built it from scratch and without outside intervention. This sharpens their sense of entitlement in the face of the rulers they elect and replace at the ballot box.

“The fact that we are surprised each time there is an election, that each time we think everything is falling apart and we then bounce back is proof of [our] resilience,” said Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst and head of Columbia Global Centers, Tunis. “I look at the region and it's the best thing you can get.”

An Olympic-sized swimming pool is pictured in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Oct. 2 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Helmi Guedri, a 35-year-old lawyer who is among a bevy of independents vying for Sidi Bouzid’s eight parliamentary seats, agrees. “In the old days the only time you could open your mouth was at the dentist. Now everybody has the right to speak,” he said.

Even as the candidates swap insults and forswear sharing power, their parties are jockeying for a common place at the country’s helm.

For all recent setbacks, Ennahda remains the most organized party. It has already announced that it is backing Saied in the presidential runoff that is due to take place Oct. 13. 

Naoufel Jammali, a lawmaker for Ennahda, is at the top of the party’s candidate list in his native Sidi Bouzid. He acknowledged that the move was calculated to piggyback on Saied’s popularity in Sunday’s polls. Unlike Karoui, the professor does not have a party of his own. His conservative outlook — he is against amending laws that deny women equal inheritance and frowns on homosexuality — is shared by Ennahda’s supporters. Some 40% of Ennahda’s base defected to other candidates in the presidential election, mainly to Saied, according to an internal party poll.

“The people punished us, they voted against the establishment, we need to face this reality and deal with it and it's going to be tough, very tough. All options are on the table,” Jammali told Al-Monitor over lemonade at a snazzy new cafe not far from the swimming pool in Yasmine, an up-and-coming neighborhood on the eastern edge of Sidi Bouzid.

The pool is meant to inspire hope among the town’s youths, to steer them away from the extremism that has lured away so many of its sons to Syria and Libya to fight alongside al-Qaeda and IS. A government official who would identify himself only as Yasin because of the sensitive nature of the topic acknowledged that “many” from Sidi Bouzid had joined the militants, though he was unable to provide any figures.

Leila Chettaoui, a lawmaker from Chahed’s ruling Tahya Tounes party who closely monitors extremist groups, said the government is ignoring the problem. “There are at least 6,000 families who have been affected by this scourge,” she told Al-Monitor. “Yet, to give you an example, there is no de-radicalization program in place for returning militants or for those who are freed from jail.”

Sports and cultural activities may not provide a cure, but they have created some employment opportunities. 

“We have university graduates who work as lifeguards and teach girls and boys how to swim at the pool,” Abdelsalem Khedar, the government-appointed “delegate” or urban administrator, told Al-Monitor in an interview near the site of where Bouazizi set himself on fire.

A sprawling modern arts and culture complex behind the swimming pool serves a similar purpose. Wail Hadji, a wiry young former revolutionary with black-rimmed spectacles and tousled hair, runs the center, which hosted its first national culture festival the last week of September. “Local kids took part in the performances, there was a lot of enthusiasm and I feel very happy,” Hadji said.

A new cultural center in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Oct. 2, 2019 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

But for many, a theater and a swimming pool may seem like needless luxuries, symbols of the tone deafness of the central government sitting over 200 kilometers away. “It's not the people’s priority here,” said Jammali, with a cold stare. “People want water, yes, but they want it to run from their taps.”

Access to water is a growing problem in Sidi Bouzid. Marco Jonville, an expert on the environment at the Tunisian Federation for Economic and Social Rights, a Tunis-based nonprofit, told Al-Monitor this is linked to the mounting debt owed by the local farmers’ association to the electric company, which then shuts off the power supply used to pump water used to irrigate crops.

“People are feeling abandoned by the state, especially the elderly, who, under Ben Ali, were given stuff,” he told Al-Monitor. "Manish Dawla" — Arabic for “We don’t have a state” — is an increasingly frequent refrain.

Guedri, the independent candidate, blames French colonialism for Tunisia’s chronic ills. It's a well-trodden path. “All the people in the political field are controlled by the French,” he said, reeling off the names of his opponents, including Chahed.

Such conspiratorial jingoism resonates with youth, which may explain why Hadji, the director of the cultural complex, has decided to stage a play that describes “how much evil the French colonialists were responsible for here."

Guedri’s solution for the poor is to distribute government-owned land for farming. He also promises “to help young university graduates find employment in Europe, America and Africa.” Does this include France? “We have nothing against the French people,” he responded with a sheepish grin.

Khedar, the government official, said the main problem in Sidi Bouzid is the government’s stretched finances. “There isn’t enough money,” he said.

Youth unemployment is stuck above the national average, which is estimated at 34%. A dairy factory built in partnership with France’s Danone, and the Meknassi phosphates mine, which opened this year, have added hundreds of new jobs. But this is not enough. The town’s streets are filled with uncollected garbage, its coffee shops brim with men during working hours. “If Bouazizi paid us a visit from heaven, he would burn himself a second time. Just look at this place,” fumed Samer Abdouli, a local activist and whistleblower. “Sidi Bouzid should be a priority for the government. But instead of expanding employment they expanded the prison and sent in more police.”

His fury is shared by locals at a grimy open-air market with arched stalls erected in memory of Bouazizi with funding from the EU. 

Used clothes vendor Badri Abdel Nabi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Oct. 2, 2019 (photo by Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Badri Abdel Nabi, 41, is among dozens of locals who eke out a living selling used clothing, which is imported in bulk from Europe and sold through a chain of middlemen by the kilogram. A mauve lace thong strikes an incongruous note among the sad piles of children’s clothes at his stall. Nabi said he makes 20 dinars ($6) on a good day. The 30-dinar monthly fee for joining the swimming pool is likely beyond his reach. 

The father of four has never voted. “But now I will be voting along with all my family members," he said. "We will all be voting for Qalb Tounes, for Nabil Karoui.” Pressed for a reason, Nabi said, “Karoui is the nicest man in all of Tunisia. He came to Sidi Bouzid and felt my pain.”

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Found in: Tunisia elections

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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