Tunisia's Most Intimidating Statesman Creates New Party

Article Summary
Beji Caid Essebsi’s new Call of Tunisia party is receiving a mixed reception, writes Synda Tajine. On one hand, his supporters claim that his experience and political savvy is just what Tunisia needs to counter the Islamist movement. On the other hand, his his political past is too much for some Tunisians to overlook.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the 86-year-old statesman and Tunisian lawyer, is still resourceful and knows exactly how to move his audience. Some of his detractors think he's no longer within the political age of governing and others call for his "political death," but one thing is certain: Essebsi is disturbing [the political scene].

To his admirers, Essebsi's language — especially  his sense of humor — his repartee and his "old wolf" political experience give him the aura of a superhero, straight out of a comic book to answer the "Call for Tunisia." But will he use these powers for good, or for evil? Why does Essebsi scare so many?

Former prime minister of the second transitional government and minister of interior, defense and foreign affairs between at various points between 1965 and 1986, Essebsi was a disciple of [first Tunisian president Habib] Bourguiba. He now wants to be seen as a remedy for the country. The old man seems to be taking his “brilliant” ideas from his former idol’s old bag of tricks.

Given that the opposition is still digesting its defeat to the Islamist monster and finding it increasingly difficult to exist and innovate, searching through Bourguiba’s old ideas seems to be a good idea.

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However, over the years, this Bourguibist has lost some of his legitimacy, and his image has been tarnished by controversial and totalitarian choices. The victims of the former regime, including the Islamists, have different views regarding the Great Leader’s resurrection with a newer, more democratic face.

At the unveiling ceremony of Essebsi’s new "centrist, liberal and unifying" party, the thousands of supporters gathered at the Palais des Congrès in Tunis were treated to a real media show. Only the most important people were invited into the hall itself: representatives of the bourgeoisie from Tunis and other big cities as well as senior figures from the dissolved RCD [Constitutional Democratic Rally], to which the Nida Tounes party [the Call of Tunisia] officially opened its arms. Outside, dozens of protesters gathered to chant "RCD Get Out!" before being dispersed by police.

"We reject anyone who is involved in acts of corruption or malfeasance," said Taieb Baccouche. The witch hunt is officially over.

Essebsi gave his first speech as party leader amid a volatile political scene, and put his finger where it hurts. He criticized the lax attitude that the the government has adopted toward the abuses on the part of the Salafists, and called on members of the Troika [in reference to Tunisia’s tripartite government] to take responsibility for the recent events that have shaken the country.

In a speech that was punctuated by suras from the Koran, he insisted that "there was no clergy in Islam," and that "the Muslim Tunisian people do not need a government that behaves as a religious guardian or delivers sermons.”

While this inaugural speech was met with excitement by many of those in attendance, but Essebsi is still struggling to convince [the rest of the population].  The new “Call for Tunisia”  party has put the political classes’ on edge. Even the opposition is disturbed by Essebsi.

Essebsi’s initiative met with the Republican Party (RP), or "Al Joumhouri" as his disciples like to call it. Maya Jribi, Secretary General of the Republican Party, welcomed Essebsi's "ability to unite [the people]" and "consensual legitimacy." However, she said that her party "wants to remain independent."

Yassine Brahim, the RP’s executive director, explicitly ruled out any possible alliance with Essebsi’s new party, saying, "He is our competitor." Brahim also fears that Essebsi will  "pinch our members, our sources of funding, etc."

On the other hand, Selma Baccar, a PDM [Modernist Democratic Pole] member of the Constituent Assembly, said that reconciliations are underway with the RP. She deemed an alliance with the Call "the only alternative to Ennahda" and said that "even if the RCD advocates who are guilty of crimes must go to court, the witch hunt must end."

In addition to the opposition’s internal divisions and inability to unify their lists, the presence of RCD members among their ranks remain a psychological obstacle. And this is an argument the ruling parties make frequently.

Let us recall that Ennahdha declared its intention to submit a Constituent Assembly bill that would block former RCD advocates from participating in any political activity.

"The Essebsi issue is heavy and black. He served as president of the Chamber of Deputies and he was member of the RCD Central Committee," said Rafik Abdessalem. Abdessalem accused Essebsi of wanting to "take a step backwards, even though the eras of Bourguiba and Ben Ali are over."

Will voters be afraid to see former practices — practices that they thought were long gone — reappear at the forefront of the political scene? Or, will they opt to vote against the Islamists, while promoting an alternative that lauds, nevertheless, a preservation of the modernist gains?

Mustapha Ben Jaafar contends that Essebsi's questioning of the legitimacy of the Troika government "could threaten the state's security and stability." He warned against "counter-revolutionary forces who are trying to leave through the door only to enter back again through the window.”

In response to Mr. Ben Jaafar, Mohsen Marzouk reminded the president of the Constituent Assembly of his past while accusing him, in turn, of wanting to undermine any serious attempt that may constitute a possible alternative to power.

Is Essebsi's new party indeed an alternative to Ennahdha? It is hard to tell as of now given that the Call of Tunisia is in its infancy and it has as many advantages — according to its supporters and many Tunisians — as it has disadvantages, according to its many detractors.

Until Tunisians have to choose between two evils, there might be just one step that some will not hesitate to take.

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Found in: bourguibists, tunisian republican party, nida tounes, call of tunisia, bourguiba, pdm, ennahda, ben ali, beji caid essebsi
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