Tunisian elections intensify focus on alliances

As the elections draw near in Tunis, different factions attempt to bolster their position.

al-monitor A general view shows Tunisia's Constituent Assembly, in Tunis, June 25, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souiss.

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zine el abidine ben ali, tunisian politics, tunisian opposition, revolution, government, ennahda, elections

Sep 14, 2014

Tunisia is awaiting its legislative and presidential elections on Oct. 26 and Nov. 23, respectively. The elections will mark the end of the democratic transition that began after the revolution of October 2010 that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They are also the first elections since the new constitution was adopted earlier this year. The new constitution reduced presidential powers in favor of parliament and the cabinet.

The elections coincide with a surge in terrorism, after the assassination of prominent dissidents such as Chokri Belaid and Popular Current Party MP Mohamed Brahmi. Violence reached its peak at the end of July 2014, when security institutions and a number of military installations in Jebel ech Chambi were targeted.

In the elections, there’s a clear presence for the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia and similar movements, especially since they benefited when Ennahda turned a blind eye to the Salafist movement in its attempt to tarnish the image of the civil currents.

The elections coincide with a decline in Ennahda’s momentum after it failed to ease the crisis when it was the backbone of the troika government.

In addition to the traditional elements, the electoral environment in Tunisia is witnessing new elements that may affect the vote, the first being the proliferation of competitors for the Carthage Palace. More than 30 political and human rights figures have decided to compete. Even though the palace’s constitutional powers have been reduced, the weight of the presidency in the collective consciousness of Tunisians exceeds its constitutional powers. In addition, becoming president, in addition to its social prestige, is a dream for those who seek revenge against Ben Ali’s regime.

It is likely that the large number of candidates may spread out the votes and prevent a decisive victory. In that case, the winner would need stronger legitimacy to prevent the return of despotism, and to exercise power without pressure.

The military has been neutral regarding the political interactions and has limited its role to securing the electoral process. The Tunisian military establishment regained its presence on the political scene after Ben Ali’s departure. It is now a guarantor of civil peace and the existence of the state. The military has also become one of the most important factors for stability and for maintaining the balance among the intellectual and political factions. That role was made clear when Tunisian Defense Minister Ghazi Jeribi declared that the military would remain neutral and not interfere in political affairs.

Civil society institutions are being harassed. Mehdi Jomaa’s government froze the activity of more than 157 associations as a precautionary measure and “for security reasons” before the elections, on suspicion of receiving suspicious funds and for having terrorist links. Some media institutions have been closed under the pretext of inciting violence and for broadcasting extremist and takfiri discourse. Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s move, saying it contradicted the decree adopted by the transitional government in 2011, which allowed only the judiciary to dissolve associations or suspend their activities.

A careful reading of Tunisia’s reality indicates that there is something moving and growing amid the lawlessness and the expanding radical groups. That may reflect negatively on Ennahda’s political position because Ennahda was the first to legalize the jihadist Salafist movement and turned a blind eye to its involvement in violent acts, before retreating and declaring Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist group.

Last March, the head of the interim Tunisian government Mehdi Jomaa admitted that the greatest threat in Tunisia was the growing violent fundamentalist current and the jihadists returning from Syria. The Interior Ministry confirmed that some 400 jihadists had returned from Syria and that it prevented more than 8,000 others from traveling to Syria in 2013.

The economic slowdown and Ennahda’s failure to respond to citizens’ aspirations have pressured Ennahda and its allies and caused Ennahda to give up its government posts. The party may end up losing some of its 89 Constituent Assembly seats.

Ennahda’s popularity declined under internal pressure. Then came the events in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohammed Morsi were overthrown on July 3, 2013. Ennahda’s spiritual leader Rachid Ghannouchi famously said: “If we lose power, we will come back to it. But if we lose Tunisia’s security and stability, it will be a loss for everybody.”

As Ennahda weakened amid its struggle with Tunisian civil forces, the law “fortifying the revolution,” which prevents those who were members of President Ben Ali’s former party from participating in political life, was withdrawn. Ennahda also agreed to contentious constitutional articles, especially Chapter 6, which sparked controversy for criminalizing takfir. The chapter now reads: “The state is the guardian of religion. It guarantees freedom of conscience and of belief and the free exercise of religious worship. The state is committed to protecting the sacred and to prohibiting any offense to them. It commits itself, equally, to the prohibition of, and the fight against, calls to takfir.”

The heavily polarized electoral environment may not allow Ennahda to reach the forefront of the electoral scene without a partner, especially since Ennahda won 1.25 million votes out of a total of 7,000,569 registered voters. This is a limited result given that there are more than 10 million Tunisians. Therefore, Ennahda’s efforts to circumvent its political and popular crisis may face limited success in the next election.

However, civil parties don’t seem to fare any better. They have failed to coordinate and they have not been close to the citizens’ concerns. Civil parties have promoted ideology and values, matters that many do not find appealing because of low public awareness and because most voters are more concerned about the economic and social issues that directly affect their lives.

It is true that the civil forces have succeeded in winning an important round in their quest to besiege the Islamist movement and limit its expansion. They forced Ennahda to leave the Kasbah Palace, the seat of the prime minister. But they did not succeed in solving their problem of communicating with the broader popular sectors.

The situation of the civil current seems problematic. It has momentum in the cities and among the cultural and political elites, but is clearly absent in the countryside and among the poor and the middle class, which are betting on the Islamic forces to take over after decades of marginalization and decline under Ben Ali and the secular forces that supported him.

As the parliamentary and presidential elections draw near, Tunisian political forces, both Islamic and secular, stand at a crossroads.

The elections may result in Ennahda staying in the political game, but not in the lead, given the disappearance of Salafist parties (the main Ennahda supporters) from the electoral scene and the fact that Ennahda has distanced itself from hard-line Salafist groups after a series of violent events. Moreover, the two parties participating with Ennahda in the ruling troika have cracked from the inside.

The civil forces, especially the Popular Current and Nidaa Tunis, may win enough seats to ensure their stay in power and in partnership with Ennahda. Ennahda has re-formulated its political tactics and foreign positions and declared that it was a Tunisian movement that had nothing to do with the international Muslim Brotherhood organization.

If the appeal of civil current is witnessing a remarkable rise, Ennahda, in turn, seems capable of packing a crowd and bringing about radical changes on the political scene. Therefore, the option of a coalition government may be possible if Ennahda goes to the elections alone while leaving the door slightly open to a rapprochement with Nidaa Tunis. That is what the Congress for the Republic did. It is running in the election without partisan alliances, while remaining open to independents that are close to its orientations.

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