Tunisia: zero-sum game?

Tunisians are struggling to come to grips with the implications of their recent election. Despite widespread jubilation, they remain deeply cynical over the future of their politics as a whole.

October 23 marked a watershed moment in the Arab Middle East. In the midst of Syria’s gruesome oppression and the chaotic aftermath of Libya’s civil war, Tunisians turned a historic page, electing the region’s first ever democratically representative government. Tunisians are immensely proud of last month’s elections, which proceeded fairly and peacefully.

Despite the Election Day catharsis, however, many Tunisians remain deeply uncertain—even cynical—about the future of Tunisian politics as a whole. The newly elected Constituent Assembly must address the two central causes of cynicism—namely ongoing economic inequalities and secular Tunisians’ fear of an Islamist takeover—if it is to buoy public support for the government in the months and years ahead. 

While the response to reports of voter turnout was largely celebratory, only 49 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballot—a disappointing figure given the popular excitement following the Janaury 14 revolution that ousted long-term dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Confusion and disenchantment amongst potential voters may help explain this relatively low overall turnout. Many Tunisians felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of parties, which totaled over 80, and highly skeptical of government as a whole following more than fifty years of corrupt, despotic rule.

Such cynicism was particularly pronounced in hardscrabble interior towns like Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, and Kasserine, where ongoing poverty and a deep-seated sense of neglect have fueled fears that prosperous coastal cities will permanently hijack benefits of the revolution. Since the mid-1950s, Tunisian politicians and bureaucrats have hailed almost exclusively from wealthy coastal cities. Rural Tunisians expect more of the same regional inequalities.

Souad, a 36 year old teacher and political activist from Sidi Bouzid, told me this past summer that she resents anyone “foolish enough” to call Tunisia’s uprising the “Jasmine” Revolution. “The revolution started here—in Sidi Bouzid, in Tunisia’s Scorpion Belt,” she said. “Here we have no jasmine.”

One key underreported figure to emerge from last month’s elections is the staggering number of so-called “wasted” votes, meaning votes for parties or independent candidates who failed to win seats. An estimated 38 percent of all votes cast in Tunisia were “wasted.” In the northwest town of Jendouba, for example, 44,000 of the 118,000 votes cast failed to translate into won seats.

The fact that over a third of all voters cast “wasted” ballots may deepen the sense of cynicism and isolation many Tunisians feel regarding their government. This is particularly true in rural areas, where many voters shunned the major, urban-based parties in favor of independent, local candidates whose populist promises failed to win them enough votes for seats in the assembly.

On the other hand, feminist and secular activists have a different set of fears, namely that Ennahda—the moderate Islamist party that cruised to victory with 41 percent of the vote—will drag Tunisia backwards into a benighted form of Salafi-style conservatism. Many secularists view Ennahda members as wolves in Turks’ clothing, insidiously bent on spreading an “obscurantiste” message of violent conservatism appealingly wrapped in the moderate language of Turkish-style Islamism.

On October 26, more than 200 secular feminists demonstrated in downtown Tunis, accusing Ennahda of reneging on its campaign promises to protect women’s rights as enshrined in Tunisia’s 1956 Personal Status Code. Other Tunisians have predicted that the rise of an Islamist-led government will deal a deathblow to Tunisia’s already flagging tourism sector.

Ennahda has attempted to alleviate secularists’ fears, promising not to interfere with alcohol sales in tourist districts and calling for cooperation in a national unity government. It has also demonstrated an active commitment to women’s political participation. 42 of the 49 women elected last month were Ennahda representatives. One of them, the highly controversial Souad Abderrahim, is an unveiled doctor from Tunis.

The implications of Ennahda’s electoral victory are still emerging. Banned for the past 21 years, Ennahda members were exiled, imprisoned, and sometimes tortured. The party never had a chance to govern and hence remains an unknown quantity.  

The same could be said, however, about the very concept of “Tunisian democracy.” Ben Ali’s regime actively sought to suppress civil society and brutally silenced critical voices. Staple elements of plural democracies such as competition, coalition building, and political horse-trading were utterly absent from Tunisia until this summer.

A far-sighted campaign law passed by Tunisia’s interim government this spring restricted anyone associated with Ben Ali’s puppet party, the RCD, from running in elections. Because of this, most political parties that won seats last month are brand new. Like Ennahda, they have never governed. The future of political cooperation and good governance in Tunisia therefore remains a question.

Despite the ongoing economic and ideological polarization in Tunisian society, there are many reasons to be positive about the road ahead. The recently elected Constituent Assembly, tasked with formulating a new constitution for Tunisia, is broadly representative of the people’s will. This in itself is a major democratic achievement.

Though Ennahda won a commanding percentage of the vote, it must still go into coalition with secular centrist parties like CPR and Ettakatol in order to pass any significant measures. These runner-up parties will function as king makers in the future, likely preventing a clear-cut Ennahda “takeover” on key constitutional provisions in the assembly.

Also of key importance to Tunisia’s future is women’s participation. Women were well represented in the transitional government and will likely play a vocal role in Tunisian politics for years to come. All parties have indicated a commitment to preserving Tunisia’s Personal Status Code and furthering the project of democratic pluralism regarding women’s rights.

Tunisians have continued to protest perceived failings of their transitional governments, both the interim government of Béji Caïd Essebsi and the recently elected Constituent Assembly. In the words of Mohamed-Salah Omri, a prominent Tunisian professor, the country has become “an open university for political debate.” Watchdog groups and NGOs are springing up by the dozens. From the Kasbah protests this spring to recent demonstrations following last month’s elections, Tunisians have remained actively critical of their institutions.

This sort of ongoing participation bodes extremely well for Tunisian democracy, which- despite its many challenges- is developing at an impressive pace. These are times of immense hope for Tunisia, which stands not at the threshold of a sharia-infused Salafist state, but at the doorway of functional democracy.

About the author

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and postgraduate student in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University. She focuses on Islamist mobilization of women and youth in Tunisia and Egypt, and has written about Tunisia for the New York Times.