Egypt’s example looms large in Tunisia’s elections

Tunisia's two main political parties are each positioning themselves for the outcome of the next elections, but Intissar Fakir says only the Islamist Ennahda party seems to have a plan.

Tunisian Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, right, is playing a long game to ensure Islamist parties keep a presence in the country's politics. Photo: Mohamed Messara / EPA
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The Tunisian elections have contrasting implications for the two main political parties. The Islamist Ennahda party hopes the contest will solidify its standing as a key political force. For the more recently formed secularist Nidaa Tounes (NT), however, winning is a short-term necessity. This contest may be their only chance to remain politically viable.

Ennahda came to power in Tunisia’s first post-revolution election in 2011, and although they were only a part of a governing coalition of three parties, many blamed them for poor governance and the rise of extremism. As criticism mounted, Ennahda’s leaders feared a fate similar to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ennahda agreed to enter into a national dialogue with secularists and liberal opposition including NT. The party reached a compromise on the country’s constitution and agreed to step down in favour of a technocratic government. In some respects this has given the country a fresh start for this month’s parliamentary elections.

Ennahda’s leadership seems to have learnt an important lesson from the experience of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which prioritised a quick ascent to power over a strategy to entrench itself in the political system.

The party’s leaders understand that Ennahda will benefit from promoting a political system that makes use of its popularity but keeps it insulated from a backlash from the old security state.

This will require them to honour their promise not to field a candidate in November’s presidential election. By not being involved it will avoid accusations that it is attempting to monopolise power and will not actually lose much by it, given the largely symbolic role of the president. The party will also have influence and will be able to endorse a consensus candidate.

Nidaa Tounes is driven by its own lesson from Egypt: Islamist politics must be stopped. In the party’s view, these elections may be the last opportunity to prevent Islamists embedding themselves within the political culture. But rather than advancing an inclusive vision that could draw support away from Ennahda over the long term, Nidaa Tounes has adopted a paternalistic message in which they present themselves as the only ones capable of saving the country from incompetent governance, Islamism and terrorism.

This platform draws attention to the fact that many of NT’s members were associated with the former Ben Ali regime. It also raises concerns about whether the party can walk the fine line between a strong, centralised government and an authoritarian, corrupt one.

But if NT does not perform well in these elections, the country could be left with no united formal opposition. Because NT lacks a clear unifying ideology, internal rifts abound. Even its current drive to win the elections is not necessarily based on a long-term effort to build a secular political party, but rather a desire to keep the Islamists out of power. If the party fails to accomplish this in the coming elections, the various factions could struggle to decide what issue will hold the party together.

Despite this lack of long-term vision, NT still has a significant chance to do well in the legislative elections. Its prospects have been boosted by the role it played during the national dialogue. Furthermore, the perceived poor governance of the past three years has changed many Tunisians’ feelings about the former regime. Demand has increased for people with governing experience, which NT does have.

The party’s accomplishments – together with the changing perceptions of the old regime and those associated with it – give it a real chance.

These considerations will shape how the two parties handle the post-election period. Regardless of who wins, each side is likely to act in government similar to how it is acting in the election: Ennahda will play the long game and NT will seek a short-term way to keep it in check. This wouldn’t be a bad outcome in the short term for Tunisia – its own form of checks and balances – but over a longer period, the secularists would remain without a proper strategy if they are reduced to constantly reacting to Ennahda.

Intissar Fakir is the editor in chief of Sada, the Middle East journal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace