Are Tunisians just re-electing the old guard?

With former Ben Ali minister Beji Caid Sebsi apparently leading the vote to be president, what does this mean for Tunisia's future? Photo: EPA / STR
With former Ben Ali minister Beji Caid Sebsi apparently leading the vote to be president, what does this mean for Tunisia's future? Photo: EPA / STR

With official results confirming that Beji Caid Sebsi will be Tunisia’s next president, what should be made of his strong links to the ousted regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? To some observers, the election of a former minister with the vilified regime means that four troubled years after the revolution, the same people are back running the country.

However that would be both to oversimplify and underestimate the nature of Tunisian politics, which has demonstrated a maturity, long-term view and a remarkable degree of responsibility. Mr Sebsi contends he is a technocrat and in any event, the choice for the voters at this election was between secular and Islamist candidates, rather than overtly for or against the Ben Ali regime’s legacy.

One also has to appreciate the nature of any one-party state, as Tunisia was for the 23 years of Ben Ali’s presidency. Until he fled to Saudi Arabia – he was the first of the Arab Spring leaders to be deposed – anyone who wanted to get ahead in politics had to be part of the ruling party. There was, quite simply, no other game in town.

Some of those would have been zealots who backed Ben Ali’s vision but some too would have been genuine technocrats whose loyalty to the party would have been an allegiance of convenience.

Whether Mr Sebsi will prove to be another Ben Ali or a genuine technocrat remains to be seen. Nidaa Tounes, the party Mr Sebsi founded after the first post-revolutionary elections in 2011, is now the biggest faction in parliament, with more than 80 of the 217 seats. The checks and balances will primarily come from the coalition members with which the party gained its parliamentary majority.

Unlike many of the other Arab Spring countries, the experience in Tunisia supports optimism that Mr Sebsi will govern inclusively rather than only for the benefit of his supporters.

He has to, because the factors that prompted the revolution in the first place – such as high youth unemployment and a perceived lack of opportunity – still prevail. The name of Mr Sebsi’s party translates as “Tunisia’s Call”, and dealing with those problems must take priority over his previous affiliations.

Published: December 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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