Tunisia: Cheers and Doubts
By Robin Wright
The celebratory honking and shouting on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the elegant boulevard that runs through Tunisia’s capital, began within seconds of the announcement that Sunday’s election had produced the country’s first democratically elected President—the culmination of an uneasy transition that began, in 2011, with the Jasmine Revolution. In a tight runoff, Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently turned eighty-eight, was declared the winner. He is Tunisia’s most experienced politician; he has served as defense minister, foreign minister, and interior minister. But these positions were held under Tunisia’s two most autocratic leaders, and Essebsi personifies the old guard—known by critics as the Remnants.
Tunisia has emerged as a model for Arab nations. Its three elections since October, held in unheated schools around the country, have been serious and well run—especially compared to the flagrant vote-buying and vote-rigging elsewhere in the Middle East. Tunisians “raised the bar of what is possible,” Ken Dryden, the former Canadian M.P. (and hockey star), who served as an international monitor for the election, said. “They have done their part.” Yet the country, with a population of eleven million, has also provided roughly three thousand fighters—more than any other nation—to the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front as they sweep through Syria and Iraq. (Tunisia’s government says it has prevented almost nine thousand more from joining.) “Any time these people decide to go to their deaths, it’s because they don’t accept conditions of life. They believe they are rejected by society,” Karim Helali, of Afek, or Horizons, a progressive party favored by Tunisia’s young people, told me.
Essebsi defeated a human-rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who was appointed to serve as interim President in 2011, while the country wrote a new constitution. The process took three years. During that time, Tunisia grappled with the assassination of two leading politicians, the rise of an extremist underground, attacks on the U.S. Embassy and an American school in Tunis, and thousands of labor strikes.
While Marzouki had the support of the revolutionary rapper El Général, whose anti-regime song became the uprising’s anthem, Essebsi held his first rally at the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, independent Tunisia’s authoritarian first President, who ruled the country for thirty years. Upon the announcement of his victory, with fifty-five per cent of the vote, Essebsi pledged on national television, “I will be President for all Tunisians.”
During the campaign, Essebsi defined himself as a technocrat, and described his new Nidaa Tounes, or Call of Tunisia Party, as a coalition of post-revolutionary political trends. He has five years to prove it. Nidaa won the largest number of seats in parliament, and is now the dominant force in two of Tunisia’s three branches of government. (The third branch, the judiciary, still has many holdovers from the ancien régime.)
Voting patterns from the election reflected a deep suspicion of the political process.
The political schism in Tunisia pits the wealthiest areas, along the Mediterranean coast, against the poorly developed south and the northwest corner that borders Algeria. In 2012, I drove to Sidi Bouzid, a remote town in southern Tunisia where Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old fruit vender, had set himself on fire to protest corruption, injustice, and social inequality. That act, on December 16, 2011, ignited the Arab Spring. (A large stone monument at the site depicts a fruit cart pushing over several thrones.) Yet the young people I spoke with on the streets and in a café across from the monument complained that life had not changed at all for them since the start of the revolution.
Today, more than thirty per cent of the young people in Sidi Bouzid and other southern cities remain unemployed. Across the country, local and international election monitors cited low turnout by young voters, not just among the poor but also among the more than two hundred thousand recent university graduates who can’t find jobs. “Most of them have been waiting five, eight, even ten years for a job,” Helali, of the Horizons Party, told me.
In October, as Tunisia prepared for parliamentary elections, almost ninety per cent of its citizens described the economy as “bad,” according to a Pew poll. The same survey found that “support for democracy has declined steeply” since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Tunisians overwhelmingly said that they wanted free elections, a fair judiciary, the right to protest, and even (by sixty-six per cent) equal rights for women. Yet they also seemed to fear the uncertain consequences of liberty. Just over half the people polled said that turmoil since the revolution had left the country worse off than it was under the old regime. Almost six out of ten said they now favor a “strong hand” over a democratic government.
“The young are still waiting for the fruits of the revolution,” Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, told me. “So the poorest region is still in protest.” It remains to be seen what the moderate Islamists will do next. Ennahda won Tunisia’s first popular election after the revolution, for an assembly to write a new constitution, and forged an alliance with two other parties, including Marzouki’s, to run the interim government. But in October it came in second in the parliamentary vote and opted not to run a Presidential candidate.
“It was a wise decision,” Ghannouchi told me on Monday. Tunisia’s elections, he said, showed that “the general situation is not in favor of Islamists.” Across the Middle East, the lesson in the past four years for moderate Islamists, he added, is “to share power with secularists.” In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fatal mistake was that it didn’t. Yet without moderate Islamists, he said, the only alternative becomes the Islamic State.