Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab spring, will hold parliamentary and presidential elections in autumn 2019. Democratic elections in Tunisia were held twice since the Ben Ali regime had been ousted in 2011, but already six governments were replaced over this period. The Ennahdha (“renaissance”) party, originally called Al-Nahda or Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), won the first election in the forefront of the Tunisian revolution and ran the government under the Troika coalition. But eventually it gave way to the left-democratic forces led by the Nidaa Tounes (“Call for Tunisia”) party, aimed at a secular state.
In connection with the death (July, 25) of the first democratically elected Tunisian President and political veteran Beji Qaid Al Sebsi, 92, the first round of snap presidential election will be held on September 15. The voting date for the parliamentary elections, October 6, remained unchanged. Beji Qaid Al Sebsi came to power with Tunisia’s independence in 1957, entering the government of Prime Minister Habib Bourguiba, where he served in many offices, including the position of Speaker of the Parliament under the Ben Ali regime until 1991. Despite the fact that the President in Tunisia is a de facto nominal figure, whose power is limited to avoid usurpation, the heavyweight Beji Qaid Al Sebsi largely determined the country’s political course aimed at democracy and restraining radical Islamists. In line with the Constitution, Tunisian Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Nasser was sworn as interim president and will perform presidential duties prior to the election.
The loss of a strong Democrat leader should be seized by Islamists from Ennahdha, led by Rached Ghannouchi. So, the presidential campaign will represent a trial run before the parliamentary elections, whose winner will appoint its prime minister that will subsequently form the government. In the 2011 Constituent Assembly election, the Renaissance Movement, Harakat al-Nahda, led by the prominent opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, received 40% of the vote. Support for Ennahdha and its members was determined by their reputation as fighters against the Ben Ali dictatorship, as well as the proposed clear way for the country’s development. Their ideology was based on traditional Islamic values shared by the majority of the population and rejected discredited clannishness in power and economy. The second came the social democratic Congress Party for the Republic (CPR) of Moncef Marzouki, who returned from his emigration to France. The Mustapha Ben Jaafar’s Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (al-Takattul, or Ettakatol) made the third partner in the ruling coalition. Troika’s representatives took key offices, Hamadi Jabali (Ennahdha) as Prime Minister, Moncef Marzouki (CPR) as President, and Mustafa Ben Jafar (al-Takattul) as the Parliament Speaker.
The Ennahdha’s pre-election rhetoric of promises to build a fair and democratic state that defends the interests of most citizens, based on common traditions, as well as the Islamic religion tolerant of other religions and political views, was replaced by monopolizing power by Islamist leaders once they got it. The movement also called for soft promotion of Muslim values in all life spheres, including Sharia law.
Islamist supporters soon occupied key places at all administrative levels, from municipalities and provinces to ministries. Paramilitary organizations, reporting directly to Ennahdha were established in addition to the official law enforcement agencies. The major mass media were taken under control and then followed the economic levers – national gas and energy supply companies.
Concentration of all resources in the hands of one player led to a new outburst of corruption, even greater than in the late period under Ben Ali, according to expert opinion. This resulted in rapid socio-economic deterioration of the country and the increased crime. Along with forced propagation of Islamic values, this caused discontent among the secular population and supporters of the democratic development, which evolved in protest actions. The popular disappointment in the Islamists’ politics was transformed into support of the liberal-democratic and left-wing political forces, which sharply criticized the Islamization of the country. The response to the strengthening of democratic forces came as the assassination of the well-known left-wing opposition figures Shukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi in 2013. The general public accused Ennahdha of staging these murders.
To oppose the Islamists, the leftists, democrats and secular forces formed the Union for Tunisia alliance in 2013, where the leading position was taken by Beji Qaid Al Sebsi’s Call for Tunisia party. This new political bloc of democratic parties organized rallies and marches that were often followed by street clashes with Ennahdha’s followers. The 2013 events led to the political crisis, subsequent resignation of the Islamist PM’s government and formation of a non-partisan cabinet headed by Mehdi Jomaa. In early 2014, Tunisia adopted a new Constitution, recognized as the most democratic in the Arab world. It envisaged dividing between religion and the activities of political parties, guaranteed freedom of religion, while preserving Islam as the state religion.
The 2014 parliamentary elections showed that none of the parties enjoyed significant advantage. The secular Call for Tunisia received 86 seats, the Islamist Ennahdha – 66, while the rest seats were distributed among various left-wing democratic movements, where the most influential was the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers. However, the presidential elections that soon followed proved again that the majority of Tunisians tended towards a secular democratic state, since Beji Qaid Al Sebsi gained 56% of the vote, while Mr. Marzouki, the former Troika president – 44%.
The political defeat of the Islamists again turned into violence. In the summer of 2015, the terrorists shot dead several dozen people, including European tourists, in the capital of Tunisia and the resort town of Sousse. The Al-Sebsi’s administration reacted toughly to these attacks and arranged cleanup of mosques and imams who preached radical Islamist ideas. Salafi organizations were banned; dozens were arrested on suspicion of involvement in extremist groups. The Parliament approved the anti-terrorism law, reinforcing the powers of the army and law enforcement agencies; the borders with Libya, deep in the fire of the civil war, were strengthened. Diplomatic relations with Syria were restored, which made possible joint activities to combat radical Islamists and prevent the come-back of Tunisian mercenaries who fought in Syria.
The Ennahdha movement was forced to modify its strategy; the Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi spoke of the need to become more a political party than a religious organization. Ennahdha headed for a change in the image of political Islam, forming a party of Muslim Democrats similar to Christian Democrats in Europe. This modified rhetoric was caused by the desire to regain power in the upcoming elections but many persons in the Tunisia’s establishment perceived such democratic evolution as pretentious. The political situation forces Ennahdha to abandon its basic values, which is fraught with a party split. However, these changes can really represent a tool of their election campaign.
On August 6, Ennahdha nominated its presidential candidate, MP Abdelfattah Mourou. The party retains broad support from Tunisian citizens, though its real level is difficult to be assessed, since polls are banned with the official start of the election campaign in mid-July. In early August, Rached Ghannouchi officially announced that the party “has withdrawn the concept of political Islam” and is not striving “for a country that represents all Muslims, but represents Tunisians”. Abdelfattah Mourou joined the list of 35 presidential candidates, which already includes former President Moncef Marzouki and populist media mogul Nabil Karoui. Minister of Defense Abdelkarim Zbidi resigned on August 7 after announcing his candidacy supported by the Call for Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes), the country’s main secular party.
The secular coalition broke up due to disagreements and an intensified struggle for power between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Al Sebsi’s son Hafez, accused of dynastism by the party members. Long live Tunisia (Tahya Tounes), which broke away from the Call for Tunisia, nominated PM Youssef Chahed for the presidential election, as announced by its secretary-general Slim Azzabi in late July.
The winner of the race will get a country, whose economic situation does not satisfy the democratic forces. The Tunisian authorities have struggled to gain popular support for cutting government expenditures, as recommended by the International Monetary Fund against a $ 2.9 billion loan in 2016. The annual economic growth has reached 2.6%, but this is still not enough to reduce unemployment, which fluctuates around 30% among young people, the main driving force of the revolution.
The democratic reforms implemented in Tunisia are yet unable to fully overcome the problems in the economy, unemployment and corruption that previously led to the events of 2011. The authorities need support for new transformations in the country’s economy, which rely on the external borrowing and therefore cannot be popular by default. There also remain threats from radical Islamism and the terrorist groups. With view of great support given to the Ennahdha Islamists, the government anti-terrorist activities will have to maintain balance between fighting against extremists and maintaining functional cooperation with legal Islamic organizations.