Is Tunisia's Popular Essebsi A Match for The Islamist Party?

Article Summary
The former prime minister of the Tunisian transitional government, Beji Caid Essebsi, enjoys widespread popularity and is seen as a stabilizing force. His new party, “Tunisia's Call,” may represent a hope for a democratic Tunisia — if he can solidify his support with the non-Islamist majority, says Mounir Ben Mahmoud.

Looking back on the the October 23, 2011 election in Tunisia, we can only bemoan the splitting of the vote. Given the circumstances, Ennahda was the only party able to pull off a win. We should think about restructuring the Tunisian political landscape in order to secure the conditions for democratic power transfers. Former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi’s efforts in launching the “Tunisia's Call” party represented a small step in that direction. But will Essebsi’s credibility, which he gained during his successful leadership of the transitional government, be enough to face Ennahda? And, above all, can he exorcise the demons of the former Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD)?

At first glance, an objective analysis of Tunisia after the January 14, 2011 revolution would look favorably on the work done by Essebsi and his team, who managed to achieve a smooth transition following democratic and transparent elections.

That success, which gained Essebsi much credibility among local and international communities, was made possible by his personality. Essebsi has the unanimous support of those around him and has received praise from all sides.

Helped by a political scene that was largely empty upon his arrival, the transitional prime minister quickly became the charismatic leader of a society that believes in his "genius.” A large part of the political class saw Essebsi’s success as a useful springboard to reach the political center stage — everyone made use of it according to their own interests and narrow political calculations.

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There are two political forces with a vested interest in the formation of Tunisia's Call. First are the RCD members who want to clean up their reputation by dissociating themselves from Habib Bourguiba’s “dictatorship” and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s “mafia.” If Essebsi was able to wipe away his history with those two regimes, then why couldn’t they? Then there are the the center-left democratic parties, like the Progressive Democratic Party, the Ettajdid Movement and the Tunisian Aspiration Party. They will be tempted to take advantage of the potential of this symbolic figure given their failure thus far to gain the support of the masses, as indicated by the results of the 2011 elections.

However, these political parties do not all see the former prime minister’s contributions in the same light. Some have accepted his leadership without question, and are convinced that he must reach the top of the pedestal for them to benefit electorally from his stellar image among the people. They see in him a figure that will discourage infighting which could derail the project. Among those political figures are Ahmed Brahim and Kamel Morjane.

Other parties want to limit Essebsi’s role to a symbolic presence behind the initiative — like a sage from whom they can seek advice. They seem to be repeating the words of Rafik Abdessalem, who said that Essebsi’s political lifespan has expired, that he has no business being a leader. That clan includes Ahmed Najib Chebbi, Amor S’habou and Mohamed Sahbi Basli.

To illustrate this split, when Ahmed Brahim and Kamel Morjane sat by the sides of Tunisia's Call's founders during a recent event, Amor S’habou withdrew from the initiative. While Najib Chebbi delegated Mongi Ellouze to represent the party at the Tunisia's Call launch, Mohamed Sahbi Basli decided to attend, even though he knows well that he has no political future beyond this initiative.

Said Aidi, the minister of employment during the transitional government and a member of the Republican party, was with the initiative’s founding members. Everything indicates that he will freeze his membership in the Republican party, as did Boujemaa Remili with the Ettajdid Movement.

One scene during Essebsi’s speech gave an idea of the new party’s direction: The organizers waited until the last minute before preparing a row of chairs for the founding members — Ahmed Brahim, Kamel Morjane and Said Aidi, among others — in the front of the room. This would seem to strongly signal that these people will make up the real base of Tunisia's Call, not those sitting on the second row: Sahbi Basli, Mohamed Jegham, Mongi Ellouze, and Mohamed Sayah.

Another signal on the party’s direction was sent to the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) when in Essebsi’s speech, he acknowledged the contribution of the trade unions to the revolution without conferring it any political or partisan coloring. “The UGTT acted as a [mouthpiece] for the young protesters,” he said in his speech.

The former prime minister also recalled the trade union’s initiative to lower the political tensions in order to allow the revolution to succeed. That and his February 25 visit to Mohamed Ali Square, where he expressed his support for the UGTT, show the important role he gives to the trade union for the success of his social plan.

In that regard, it should be noted that the UGTT’s stated policy objectives do not differ from those of the initiative. They call  for an easing of tensions, and are positioning themselves as a force with ideas that can contribute to the revolution.

Essebsi’s rosy image is Tunisia's Call’s greatest asset. Other important potential strengths include the RCD members present among its ranks, the ardor of the Ettajdid members and other independent democrats and the hand it has extended to the UGTT. But how will they avoid being criticized by the fact that RCD members are using their party to return to the political scene?

Essebsi has said that arbitrary exclusion from politics must end, and that proper judicial proceedings must be held for those who have committed crimes, be they politicians or businessmen.

On the one hand, he supports accountability. He has not said that he supports a pardon in the name of national reconciliation; he has regularly spoken about the importance of transitional justice. On the other hand, he spoke out against the arbitrary exclusion of RCD members from politics, for electoral reasons.

Such a stance certainly satisfies a good portion of the population, which seeks transitional justice rather than vigilantism. But will the Tunisia's Call movement be able to communicate its centrists ideas to the population without making recourse to the former RCD’s networks?

In any case, Essebsi is aiming for the support of the non-Islamist Tunisian majority. We must not forget that out of the four million who voted on October 23, 2011, two and a half million voted against the Islamists.

Many observers believe that it will be necessary to remove the crooked RCD from this political project if it is to succeed. But is this possible when everyone knows that politics have never been clean? 

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Found in: beji caid essebse, tunisian elections, rcd, islamists, ennahda, democratic transition, call for tunisia, arab spring, arab
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