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Flowering of the Arab Spring

Understanding Tunisia’s Elections Results

by ESAM AL-AMIN

In early 1994 a small Islamic think tank affiliated with the University of South Florida (USF) planned an academic forum to host Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the main opposition party in Tunisia, Ennahdha. The objective of this annual event was to give Western academics and intellectuals a rare opportunity to engage an Islamically-oriented intellectual or political leader at a time when the political discourse was dominated by Samuel Huntington’s much hyped clash of civilizations thesis.Shortly after the public announcement of the event, pro-Israeli groups and advocates led by Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson, the head of the local B’nai B’rith, and a small-time journalist for the local rightwing newspaper began a coordinated campaign to discredit the event and scare the university.

According to Arthur Lowrie, a former State Department official who was an adjunct professor at USF at the time, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups exerted enormous pressure on the State Department to rescind its visa to Ghannouchi two weeks after it was issued in London. Consequently the university had to cancel the event, despite the strong protests by more than two-dozen scholars and academics. As a result, a valuable encounter between western intellectuals and opinion makers on the one hand, and a major figure in the Islamic world on the other, was obstructed because of a foreign agenda of a small but powerful interest group. This episode foreshadowed the anti-intellectual movement in subsequent years that sought to limit the ability of Islamic groups and figures to contribute to the national dialogue, especially after 9/11.

Since that day in 1994, Ghannouchi has never been issued a visa to enter the United States, although he had been to the country several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, he was living in the United Kingdom after being granted political asylum and cleared by the British authorities of any links to violence. He had also won a defamation lawsuit in the U.K. against detractors and regime loyalists who accused him of fomenting violence and strife inside Tunisia.

Seventeen years later, Ghannouchi’s Islamically-oriented Ennahdha movement has won the elections in Tunisia with a commanding 42 percent of the vote. In effect, it received three times as many seats as the next highest party. These elections were largely praised by all relevant parties and international observers as democratic, free, fair, and transparent.

But these free and fair elections could not have taken place without the popular revolution that erupted last December17 in Sidi Bouzid following decades of  repression and rampant corruption. It quickly spread throughout the country, ultimately culminating on January 14 when the long-time dictator Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia.

Since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, the country has been ruled by a one-party system that imposed its autocratic version of strict secularism. But when Ben Ali took power in a bloodless coup in 1987, he treated the country to a brief period of political openness until the security apparatus cracked down on all political opposition, particularly Ennahdha and other pro-democracy and human rights groups.

So who were the major contenders in these elections? What was the main platform of each party? How did each one fair in the end? What do the results mean for Tunisia? And what happens next?

On October 23rd, Tunisians went to the polls for the first time since their revolution to elect a Constituent National Assembly (CNA) consisting of 217 seats, including 18 representing more than one million expatriates living abroad, out of 11 million Tunisians. The main role of the CNA is to write a new constitution for Tunisia that embodies the democratic aspirations of the popular revolution.

There were about 91 party lists as well as independents distributed over 27 geographical districts around the country and 6 districts abroad, mainly in Europe. According to the Tunisian Independent Elections Commission, the voter turnout exceeded all estimates, as nearly ninety percent of all registered voters participated, with some waiting as long as four hours to cast their votes. Amidst the dozens of lists, there were actually four major contenders. But a win of nine percent of the votes by a newly formed party with questionable leadership, was a major surprise to all political observers in Tunisia. Here is a list of the elections’ major winners and losers.

1) Ennahdha Party was the successor to the Tunisian Islamic Trend Movement that was once affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s and has been led by Ghannouchi, 70, since the mid 1970s. In 1989 it changed its name to Ennahdha or Renaissance Party and declared its commitment to democracy and pluralism. The movement considers itself a moderate Islamic party concerned with the preservation of Tunisia’s identity as an Arab and Islamic nation. For much of the past decade it has called for a political model similar to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayeb Erdogan in Turkey. More recently, it has advocated the accommodation of liberal and secular-humanist values with Islamic principles, especially in social and economic spheres. It also favors a parliamentary system of government.

After almost gaining a fifth of the vote in the 1989 elections, Ben Ali banned the movement and cracked down on its institutions, imprisoning around thirty thousand of its members over the span of two decades. As the main opposition group in the past three decades, Ennahdha was well organized and known throughout the country. Its leaders were respected and admired not only in urban centers but also in rural areas. Consequently, in this election it won overwhelmingly in all districts but one, gaining 90 seats, including half the seats abroad.

2) Congress for the Republic (CFR). Established in 2001 it has been led by Moncef Marzouki, 66, a charismatic physician and human rights advocate. The CFR is considered a leftist party that emphasizes Arab nationalism and identity as well as mainly secular values. Moreover, it calls for public accommodation of moderate Islamic principles and groups. It also advocates for a presidential system with strong parliamentary powers. Marzouki is well known for his fierce advocacy of human rights, democracy and transparency. CFR came in second in voting, receiving 30 seats across the country.

3) Block (Takattol) for Labor and Liberties. Established in 1994 by progressive and leftist activists and professionals, Takattol rejected dictatorship and advocated for socialist and nationalist policies. Its leader is Mustafa Bin Jaafar, 71, who was named Health Minister in the cabinet appointed shortly after the revolution. Although very secular in its policies, it recognizes the importance of Islam in society and has a moderate and accommodationist view on the inclusion of political Islam in public life. It gained 21 seats in the elections.

4) The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). Established in 1998, PDP was considered the main opposition party challenging the corrupt ruling party during the reign of Ben Ali. It advocated strict secular principles and was regarded as the main ideological nemesis of Ennahdha. Its historical leader was Ahmad Nejib Chabbi, 67, a well known attorney, and leftist politician. Since 2006 it has been led by Maya Jribi, 51, a biologist, human rights activist, and a feminist with enormous political skills. During the campaign PDP leaders challenged Ennahdha and pledged to come first. However, it was crushed in the elections receiving only 17 seats. After the elections it conceded defeat and congratulated Ennahdha, but vowed not to join any governing coalition and to remain in the opposition.

5) Popular List (Al-Aridha Chabiyya). The elections result of this list was a complete surprise to all observers. This list, which has only existed for few months, was led by Al-Hashmi Al-Hamdi, the owner of a TV satellite channel based in London and a former Ennahdha member who broke with the group in the mid 1990s. Since then he has openly attacked Ennahdha and worked closely with Ben Ali’s regime. His group gained 19 seats in the elections.

Many political observers charge that this party was financed and supported by the remnants of the old regime and Ben Ali’s banned Constitutional Party. After announcing the results, the Elections Commission invalidated the seats of the Popular List in six districts charging the party with elections violations, including bribery.

The remaining seats were distributed over twenty other parties including tribal, liberal, communist, and other far-left parties. But most significantly the main loser was the coalition of eleven rigidly anti-Islamic secular parties and former communists under the name the Democratic Modernist Pole (DMP). Throughout the country DMP could not garner more than five seats.

The huge win by Ennahdha, followed by CFR represents a total break from the parties and political movements of the corrupt and repressive era of Ben Ali. The collective will of the Tunisian people as embodied by the results of this election was to empower the main groups that associated strongly with moderate Islamic principles and Arab-Islamic identity.

By choosing moderate political groups that were not corrupt or part of the old archaic political structure, the Tunisian people  sent an unsmbiguous  message that they want moderate Islamists and secularists to work together in establishing democratic governance and building a just socio-economic system, while preserving hard-won freedoms and liberties, as well as respecting human rights and the Arab-Islamic identity of Tunisia.

Upon winning the elections in convincing fashion, Ennahdha gave assurances that it will not impose Islamic social and moral edicts on society, but rather intends to preserve the legal rights given to women with regards to personal status law. It also announced that it would not ban alcohol or bathing suits as its opponents had charged. The day after announcing the elections results Ghannouchi himself met with the leaders of Tunisia’s stock market to assure them of his party’s strong support for vigorous economic growth, especially in the tourism sector. His party’s platform calls for a robust annual economic growth of eight percent.

Ennahdha announced that its Secretary General Hamadi Jebali, 62, a former journalist and engineer by training, would be its candidate for prime minister. He pledged to form a national unity government within a month that will include as many of the elected parties as possible. At minimum, the three major winners with a commanding majority of 141 seats have pledged to work together for the future of Tunisia. Furthermore, in a spirit of reconciliation Jebali announced that Ennahdha’s candidate for interim president would be either Marzouki of CFR or Bin Jaafar of Takattol.

But the major challenges facing the next government are three-fold. Not only should Ennahdha be able to form a unity government, but an effective government that will be able to deliver to the common man and woman in the street physical and economic security as well public services at a moment of tremendous political turmoil and social change. Luckily for the new government the economic challenge was softened this week when Qatar – as a state that has been at the forefront of supporting the Arab Spring – has pledged an immediate economic assistance package of $500 million.

Simultaneously, the elected Assembly must write the new constitution for Tunisia’s second republic within one year. Although the will of the Tunisian people was determined in this election by favoring a moderate Islamic movement and other moderate secular parties, how this might translate into a constitution that will yield a national consensus is a major undertaking and cannot be underestimated.

But perhaps the major immediate challenge facing the new government will be the reaction of the foreign powers, especially in the West, that for decades have been warning against the days where “Islamists” will be empowered.

The memory of the siege and boycott of Hamas following its victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006 is still very vivid. So far, the U.S. administration and its European allies have had a wait and see attitude, despite the noise coming from neo-conservative, Zionist, and right-wing circles. In a span of two weeks, Israeli leaders Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Tzipi Livni were warning the West against the upcoming “radical Islamic groups” taking charge throughout the Middle East and threatening Israel and Western interests.

The same old Islamophobic voices, that raised false alarms echoing Israeli hyped fears over twenty years ago and poisoned the atmosphere between the West and moderate Islamic groups, are back at it again. The real question now is: Have Western political leaders learned anything during this time or are we about to initiate a predictable sequel to the clash of civilizations?

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com