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Reflections From Tunisia

Tunis.

Some nine months after the country’s January Revolution and the ousting of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali from power, Tunisia took a further step on the path to democratic government late last month when elections were held to elect the constituent assembly that will write the country’s new constitution.

With all the votes now counted and appeals to the country’s independent elections authority closed, the results are a clear vote of confidence in the Islamist Al-Nahda Party, banned under Bin Ali, to lead Tunisia’s transition towards a new and democratic future.

As the results were announced last week, the mood in Tunis was one of trying to digest the significance of the Al-Nahda victory at the polls and what this might mean for the country’s new constitution and the shape of its next government.

Yet, according to analysis in the Tunis press the Al-Nahda victory, though impressive, has not been overwhelming. Of the more than seven and half million Tunisians theoretically able to vote, only a little over four million in fact did so, making Al-Nahda’s 40.5 per cent of the vote something like 20 per cent of the electorate as a whole.

Moreover, with 90 seats in the new constituent assembly out of a total of 217, Al-Nahda, though the single largest party, does not possess an absolute majority, suggesting that it may need to enter into coalition with one or more of the other parties that won seats in the elections.

According to the results announced last Thursday, these parties were: the Congr̬s pour la R̩publique, 30 seats; Ettakatol Party, 21 seats; Al-Aridha, the Popular Petition Party, 19 seats; the Parti d̩mocrate progressiste, 17 seats; the P̕le d̩mocratique moderniste, a coalition of smaller leftist parties, five seats; and Al-Moubadara, five seats.

A sprinkling of smaller parties won a further two or three seats (Afek Tounes: three seats; Al-Badil Al-Thawri: three seats; Mouvement des patriots democrats: two seats).

According to Rachid Ghannouchi, co-founder of the Al-Nahda Party, who returned to Tunisia after two decades in exile after Bin Ali’s flight in January, the Party would be willing to join forces with any of the other parties that opposed the Bin Ali regime in writing a new constitution and in governing the country.

The main candidates for any coalition arrangements with Al-Nahda, Tunisia’s various leftist parties, were also the clearest losers in the recent elections. Either because they were not sufficiently organised to fight convincing campaigns, or because they failed to convince their supporters to turn out to vote, these left the field open to Al-Nahda and its dynamic secretary-general Hammadi Jebali to sweep the board, the latter being widely tipped to become Tunisia’s next prime minister.

Of the leftist parties contesting the elections, the Congrès pour la République (CR), led by one of Tunisia’s longest-standing opposition politicians, Moncef Marzouki, did best, winning some 345,000 votes, though this was still less than a third of Al-Nahda’s one-and-a-half million.

The CR was followed by the Ettakatol Party, led by veteran opposition politician Mustafa Bin Jaffar, this winning some 254,000 votes. Both Marzouki and Bin Jaffar are believed to have benefited from their long-standing opposition to the Bin Ali regime, with both men also having spent long periods in prison.

Comment in the Tunis press has not shed light on these parties’ intentions, and perhaps they themselves are still digesting an electoral showing that, while not excluding them from deliberations in the constituent assembly, nevertheless prevents them from playing a leading role.

According to an analysis of the results by Hatem M’Rad, a professor of political science at the Faculty of Political and Social Science in Tunis, which appeared in the Tunis papers on Monday, the leftist parties should be thankful that the results were not worse.

Had a first-past-the-post elections system been used, M’Rad wrote, instead of the proportional one that had in fact been employed, then Al-Nahda would have won all 217 seats in the constituent assembly instead of a little under half of them.

Al-Nahda, M’Rad wrote, “is the victor. The Party won the most votes in all the constituencies in the country, both in the 27 constituencies in Tunisia proper and in the six constituencies abroad. It won 90 seats out of a total of 217, which is 41.47 per cent of the total.”

“In the parliamentary elections in 1989, Al-Nahda got 13 per cent of the seats when it fielded candidates on independent lists as it was banned at the time. Between 1989 and 2011, Al-Nahda has increased its results from 13 per cent to 41.47 per cent, 13 per cent when it was an illegal party and 41.47 per cent when it was a legal one.”

Al-Nahda support was particularly high in popular areas and in Tunisia’s larger towns and cities, M’Rad wrote, the party exploiting what he called its campaign of charitable works and its populist discourse to persuade the less well-off that “God was to be found in the ballot box.”

In nine constituencies covering the country’s largest towns and cities, Al-Nahda won 35 of its 90 seats in the constituent assembly, in other words more than a third of the total number, M’Rad wrote.

For the time being, the only protests at the results of the elections and the way in which they were run seem to have been in the town of Sidi Bouzid in the centre of the country, ironically the starting point of January’s Revolution, where riots last week left sections of the town off limits and saw several public buildings destroyed.

The immediate cause of the riots seems to have been the decision by Tunisia’s electoral authority, the Instance supérieure indépendante pour les elections (ISIE), to invalidate six lists of candidates put forward by the Al-Aridh Party, also dubbed the Popular Petition Party, which is run from abroad by businessman Hachemi Hamdi, who is originally from Sidi Bouzid.

Immediately following the news of the invalidation of the lists, on the grounds that the candidates had received financing from abroad, Hamdi announced on his Al-Mostakilla satellite TV channel that he would be withdrawing all Al-Aridh Party candidates, as participating in the elections now “made no sense.”

This decision has subsequently been reversed, allowing Al-Aridh to conserve its 19 seats in the constituent assembly, but mystery still surrounds the cause of the riots in Sidi Bouzid, which were apparently directed partly against the Al-Nahda Party.

According to the Tunis press this week, the riots had broken out after Hammadi Jebali had described the residents of Sidi Bouzid as “idiotic peasants” on the Al-Nahda Party’s Hannibal TV station, with last weekend’s papers saying that tracts protesting against the town’s treatment by “the political elites and national media” had also been found in Sidi Bouzid.

Nevertheless, the newspaper La Presse said in its weekend edition that the riots in Sidi Bouzid had not broken out as a result of the invalidation of the Al-Aridh Party lists, contrary to what had been said in the international media. Instead, the paper detected the hand of members of the former regime who were seeking to spread chaos in the country as a way of destabilising the achievements of the Revolution.

“All the country’s political parties are as one in insisting on the need to unmask the enemies of the Revolution who have used this occasion to throw the Sidi Bouzid region into chaos following the holding of elections that have been praised worldwide for their transparency and fairness,” the paper commented on Monday.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Rachid Ghannouchi has several times said that the one party that Al-Nahda will not cooperate with in any future coalition is Al-Aridh, describing Hamdi as having been “an ally of the dictatorship” of former president Bin Ali.

Describing the Party’s post-elections programme, Ghannouchi told the French newspaper Le Monde in an interview at the weekend that Al-Nahda’s priorities were economic and social ones, and that the Party intended to concentrate “on issues that have an immediate impact on people’s lives, such as security, development, ensuring stability, reforming the justice system, and bringing those accused of corruption to justice.”

This message, heading towards “a coalition of all the national forces” in Tunisia, and based on “Islamic values such as equality, brotherhood, trust and honesty,” Ghannouchi repeated in a press conference in Tunis last week, in which he said that Al-Nahda had no intention of “turning Tunisians into hypocrites and making them present themselves in any way other than they are.”

“I support the right of every Tunisian man and woman to dress how he or she pleases and to live in the manner of his or her choice,” Ghannouchi said, adding that the Party’s priorities were the realisation of the objectives of the Revolution, among them that every Tunisian man or woman should be able to live in dignity and free from unemployment and poverty.

This is a message that has gone down well with Tunisians answering questions from Al-Ahram Weekly. People approached in Tunis earlier this week for their opinions on the new turn the country was taking in the wake of last month’s elections all said that Al-Nahda’s victory had been a good thing for the future of the country.

Al-Nahda had not been implicated in the corruption of Bin Ali’s “mafia regime,” one respondent said, adding that their supporters had been imprisoned “in the tens of thousands” by the former regime’s security services and “hundreds had died or been tortured.”

On a trip round the town of Carthage near Tunis, which also houses the ancient Roman and Phoenician archaeological site, it became clear that the looted former residences of the Trabelsi family, relatives of the wife of the former president, had now been added to the tourist itinerary.

Carthage is a wealthy area, contrasting starkly with the popular quarters further inland, and the villas of the Trabelsi family have been stripped of everything that can be carried away, with revolutionary graffiti sprayed on walls for good measure.

None of the other villas had been touched, and the fury of the revolutionaries had been directed at the Trabelsi family villas alone. “It was an act of vengeance more than anything else,” a driver, Mohamed, explained, also a supporter of the Al-Nahda Party.

“Bin Ali and his family ruled this country for 23 years, and they never did a single good thing for it. Now we are really looking forward to a change.”

David Tresilian writes for Al-Ahram Weekly.

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