Tunisia’s fragile new democracy faces challenges

Newly-elected Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi looks on during the swearing-in ceremony at the Tunisian Parliament (EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA)
Newly-elected Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi looks on during the swearing-in ceremony at the Tunisian Parliament (EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA)

Yesterday, Tunisians witnessed the swearing-in of their first freely elected president, Beji Caid Sebsi. The country has achieved much well-deserved praise for what has been a relatively peaceful transition to democracy. It was not an easy achievement for a country that spent 23 years under the autocratic rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who himself had ousted Tunisia’s self-declared “president for life” Habib Bourguiba.

With no experience of an honest, transparent political system, achieving a new reality in less than four years involved a steep learning curve. Yet, while none of the other Arab Spring countries have come close to achieving the same outcome, Tunisia’s success has not been without major hurdles.

Mr Sebsi’s election last month followed an October 26 parliamentary poll that saw Tunisians turn out in numbers that neared a 70 per cent participation rate. They arrived at polling booths early and waited an hour or more to cast their votes.

The two parties expected to poll well were Ennahda, the Islamist group headed by longtime opposition figure Rachid Ghannouchi, and Nida Tounes, led by Mr Sebsi, an 88-year-old who was prime minister during the early months of the Tunisian revolution and interior minister for a time under Bourguiba.

Pre-election polls suggested a close race, with one major US newspaper even predicting a win for Ennahda, which had emerged as the strongest party in the first post-revolution Constituent Assembly elections, held in October 2011.

Instead, Nida Tounes won 86 of the 217 parliamentary seats compared to Ennahda’s 69. Given that 22 seats went to other avowedly secular parties, the results suggest voters were not swayed by religion.

Many of them may well have voted for Ennahda in 2011 but become disenchanted. Ennahda’s term in office was characterised by increased unemployment, near zero job creation, a dramatic drop in tourism revenues, a massive flight of foreign investment and a clear sense that security was not a paramount issue – as evidenced by the unresolved assassinations of two Ennahda opponents.

In the end, voters chose Nida Tounes not due to a love for that party but because Ennahda had few, if any, successes to show for its tenure in power.

The year’s second election, with the first round held on November 23, was for the role of president. It is a largely symbolic position, but the president oversees the military and will play an important symbolic role in providing both Tunisians and international investors an idea of the direction the new Tunisia will be taking.

The leading candidates were Mr Sebsi and Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, who was a bona fide opposition figure during the presidency of Mr Ben Ali, who fled the country in 2011.

Mr Marzouki is a medical doctor and human rights advocate whose “street cred” was well documented, even during the Ben Ali years. He had served as the provisional president since October 2011 while heading the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR).

CPR and another small secular party, Ettaktol, were joined in a coalition with Ennahda, which was overwhelmingly the prominent player. Despite his three years as president, Mr Marzouki did not endear himself to the people and didn’t perform well in opinion polls.

It was common knowledge that Ennahda – which did not field a candidate in the presidential election – had encouraged its supporters to throw their political weight behind Mr Marzouki.

The first round of voting involved 27 candidates, but resulted in a December 21 run-off between Mr Marzouki and Mr Sebi, who won with 55.68 per cent of the vote.

Taken together with the parliamentary election, the result tends to suggest that Tunisians want a return to the past, when their country was characterised by secularism, progressive socio-economic policies and its educated populace. They voted for economic improvement, dignity and security.

It is now up to the new leaders to use their five-year mandate to implement policies that will achieve these results.

The challenges for Nida Tounes and Mr Sebsi include tackling youth unemployment, which exceeds 25 per cent, and encourage foreign investment.

The tourism sector – Tunisia’s major earner of hard currency, estimated to provide 7 per cent of the GNP and employ nearly 500,000 people – suffered after the revolution. Despite official statistics suggesting a rebound, reports from the hotel sector indicate otherwise, with many empty rooms and workers on month-to-month contracts.

Security is the issue that concerns all Tunisians. Many still refer with fondness to the period before the revolution, when Mr Ben Ali’s massive security apparatus may have spied extensively on opposition groups but it also instilled a sense of safety.

Some militant groups that have established footholds in Tunisia have made it clear that do not want to see the democratic reforms succeed.

Tunisians are showing that they have embraced democracy, but the “honeymoon” of the revolution is now over.

There is a new government but the tasks ahead are daunting.

Jerry Sorkin is an emeritus president of the American Tunisian Association and lives part of the year in Tunis

Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM

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