In exactly a month, Tunisians will go to the polls for an election that is as unplanned as the outcome is unpredictable. The country was scheduled to hold presidential elections on November 17, after parliamentary elections on October 6. But the date was hastily brought forward to September 15 after the death last month of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first democratically elected president and a symbol of how far the nation has come in nearly nine years since its uprising – and how much still remains to be done.
Geographically and culturally, Tunisia benefits from its roots in the Arab and Islamic world; Arabic is the predominant language and it has good relationships with its North African neighbours but its position on the Mediterranean means it also has its face turned towards Europe. Tunisia was where the Arab uprisings began in December 2010, when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in defiance of Zine El Abedine Ali’s 23-year rule, triggering a wave of protests across the region. But despite its modernity, particularly when it comes to the status of women, it has suffered in the years since from radical Islamism. The first free and fair elections in October 2011, won by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, were followed by the rise of ultra-conservative Salafist groups the following year, which tried to impose their will by force, from protesting outside the US embassy to provoking unrest outside concerts and venues deemed “un-Islamic”. As terrorist cells festered in pockets of the country, an estimated 6,000 recruits joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, making Tunisia the highest per capita rate in the world. Two leftist politicans, Chokri Belaid and opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, were assassinated by extremists in 2013, and in 2015, a gang of seven terrorists killed 60 people in attacks on a museum and at a beach resort, targeting mostly foreign tourists.
Yet, despite its problems, Tunisia is hailed as the closest example in the Arab world to a peaceful revolution and gave hope to the region. Other waves of protests in Libya, Syria and elsewhere were met with violence. In North Africa, Tunisia has veered between a slow-moving but efficient overhaul of its old regime, and implacable and at times dangerous authoritarianism.
There have been many times when observers feared for its future, fearing the country’s politics would derail into violence and confusion. This happened during the political crisis of 2013, sparked by fears that hardliners, who were growing in power, were behind the assassinations. The unrest was only quelled when a new constitution was drawn up in January 2014.
Nevertheless, each time the country has been through turmoil, a solution has been found – or at least, concocted. The best example of this was the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, made up of the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. Their efforts to draw up a lasting constitutional agreement were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Indeed, in the first phase post-revolution and to prevent a power vacuum opening up, a quick and effective takeover was ensured by those who had once answered to the fallen dictator. Figures of the former regime, such as the former prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa, quickly took control of the situation.
Today, when social unrest or anger erupts in deprived regions and neglected towns and cities, the situation is usually calmed down with soothing words and illusory promises – and when that fails, sometimes with tear gas, as we saw during protests against austerity measures in Ettadamen, a rundown district of Tunis, in January last year. Thus, a certain, precarious peace has prevailed, despite ideological, political and social differences, and a consensus usually triumphs.
However, it would be flawed to think that fragile peace could not break down at any moment. The demands of the revolution, which were mainly social and economic, are far from having been met or even dealt with seriously, and dissension within the political sphere is a long way from being representative of the divergence of opinions in society. While much has been done in terms of collective and individual freedoms, and launching initiatives to benefit civil society, corruption, smuggling, unemployment and a failing economy remain key issues, as well as much-needed reforms of the education and health sectors.
Tunisia has accomplished many important steps on the way to transition to a democratic process, including the adoption of the new constitution, in line with international standards: the separation of powers and the regularity of elections. However, its laws have not yet been revised and updated and there is a legacy of impunity.
It is in this context that the presidential and legislative elections will take place. It has been preceded by the break-up of alliances and surprising twists, with Ennahda fielding a presidential candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, for the first time. Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party also faces competition from prime minister Youssef Chahed, who defected to form the rival Tahya Tounes party, and Mohsen Marzouq, who broke away from Nidaa Tounes in 2016 to form Machrou Tounes. The haggling and bartering has led Tunisians to call the run-up to the elections “parliamentary tourism", as politicians abandon parties and loyalties in exchange for a promise, a service or even, allegedly, hard cash.
Essebsi created the secular Nidaa Tounes party to bring together the forces of modernism and to challenge Ennahda in the National Assembly, which he did by winning the most seats in the 2014 election. Then, familiar with the acrobatics of diplomacy and politics, the late president did not refrain from doing deals – some might have called it compromising – with the same forces he fought valiantly against.
Despite the weakening of his party, Essebsi had planned to run in the presidential elections this year. Nidaa Tounes will instead field Nabil Karoui, a controversial businessman and owner of the private channel Nessma TV. Of nearly 100 candidates who came forward for the presidential contest, 26 will go through to the next stage.
Some have seen this huge number as proof that a commitment to democracy is on the right track. Others see it as a destabilising factor, showing a lack of respect for state institutions. Among the candidates, it is noticeable how many are independent – nearly half of those running, including the minister of defence Abdelkarim Zbidi. The candidates also include former president Moncef Marzougui, three former heads of government, an ex-president of the National Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafer, Ennahda’s Mr Mourou, who is the interim president of the Assembly of People's Representatives and the ex-head of the presidential cabinet Selma Loumi.
There have been some suggestions that the scope and number of the candidates show that there is a fierce struggle between the representatives of the system in place and state institutions. Mr Mourou in particular raises the question of why Ennahda has now decided to put up a candidate, particularly one known for flip-flopping. Undoubtedly, whichever party wins the presidential election faces a huge advantage as the losers scramble to regain momentum in the short window before the legislative elections.
And there is another bone of contention: for a modernist country that underwent a revolution mainly instigated by young people, it is absurd that only two women are running for president and so few young people are standing in the legislative elections. For a country whose revolution rested on putting an end to inequalities, the representation of interior regions remains weak. There is also a lack of unity in the political sphere. The left is fielding three candidates in the presidential election and the centre is represented by Mr Karoui, an outsider.
So what can we expect on September 15? Among more than seven million registered voters will be nearly 1.5 million newcomers. Judging by last year’s municipal elections, backing for Islamist parties is eroding, although Ennahda continues to enjoy a faithful support base. Yet the high number of independents could lure votes away from more established parties.
Nevertheless, it is worth wondering what happens if Ennahda dominates in both elections: if Mr Mourou becomes president, party leader Rached Ghannouchi wins a seat in the legislative elections and the party wins a majority in parliament, what would that mean for the democratic process? There is a chance Ennahda opponents could come out in their masses to ensure Mr Ghannouchi is defeated in his fiefdom of Tunis 1 by Basma Khalfaoui, the widow of the late Mr Belaid, or Kalthoum Kennou, a judge who opposed Ben Ali and in 2014 was the first woman to run for president in Tunisia.
The country’s economy is stagnating. Unemployment is worse than it was in 2010. Women still need a voice in the corridors of power. Even if the election leads to a balance of power, it still begs the ultimate question: what happened to our revolutionary dream?
Lina Ben Mhenni is an assistant lecturer at Tunis University and the award-winning blogger behind A Tunisian Girl, which has followed the progress of the revolution since 2010