North Africa, West Asia

The presidential election and linguistic violence in Tunisia

The leading presidential candidates and some of their supporters are setting a bad example with hostile, exclusionist rhetoric, fuelling a tense political atmosphere.

Anouar Jamaoui
19 December 2014
First round election results. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

First round election results. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

One of the striking achievements of Tunisians in the post-revolution era was the adoption of a consensual democratic constitution, securing freedom of expression and free choice of the country’s rulers. The first round of the presidential election, held on 23 November 2014, was a historical opportunity to incarnate the sacrosanct principle of people’s sovereignty, an occasion for Tunisians to freely choose the most competent leader from among the 27 presidential candidates.

Heavy citizen participation in the election—62.9 percent of the total electorate—contributed to the success of Tunisia’s nascent democracy. The results revealed a sharp break with the past, with the grim days of dictatorship when one unrivalled candidate won the majority of votes.

The elections showed that Tunisians’ attitudes toward the choice of their leader have changed. Two candidates made it to the second round: Beji Kaid Essebsi (88 years old) came first with 39.46 percent of the votes, and Mohamed Moncef Marzouki (69 years old) second with 33.43 percent.

The margin between the two candidates did not exceed six percent. Such a result indicates clearly enough the integrity and the reliability of the electoral process, as well as Tunisians’ refusal to align themselves with one single person, and their faith in political pluralism as the only viable substitute for repugnant unilateralism.

However, the sense of relief felt in the hearts of Tunisians after assuming their political and electoral duties in an atmosphere of transparency and freedom did not last long. The public speeches of the two winners in the first round, along with the statements made by their respective partisans, proved to be neither reassuring nor encouraging. Both politicians and supporters went so far as to condemn the voters for choosing this or that candidate, making the voter a victim of voicing his or her political point of view.

For example, Beji Kaid Essebsi, who commented on the election results in an interview with the announcer Jean-Jacques Bordan of radio Monte Carlo, claims that those who opted for Marzouki are Salafists, Jihadists, and violent members of the League of Protection of the Revolution. Essebsi added, "unfortunately, there will be a sharp division, a sharp chasm in the texture of our society between Islamists on one level and Democrats and non-Islamists on another."

Describing the electoral behavior in such a manner can only split the electorate in a Manichean way into two groups. The first comprises the supporters of Marzouki (about one million and 92 thousand voters) who are invariably qualified as extremists and heretics. The second includes Essibsi’s supporters who are charged with being accomplices of the Ben Ali regime. Judging part of the electorate by putting them in one basket called "Salafism and extremism" is categorically exclusionist.

Essebsi forgot that there are no detailed statistical data issued by authoritative bodies in relation to the ideological affiliations of the supporters of the acting president. In fact, they come from different intellectual and cultural backgrounds. Many observers have depicted them as a mosaic of Tunisian society. Among them we find ideologues and non-ideologues, heretics and modernists, partisans and non-partisans of political parties, religious groups and secular elites, liberals and conservatives.

These voters cannot be grouped under the banner of one ideology. Moreover, the classification of voters into two categories, Islamists and democrats, is improper as it leads to the division of Tunisians on the basis of ideological allegiances. Division engenders polarisation and exclusion in a nascent democracy. Conversely, the tendency to claim that one candidate is committed heart and soul to the protection of democracy while the other is its eternal foe is undeniably illogical.

Tunisians have chosen a democratic political system, thereby electing the peaceful handover of power as a substitute for the coup d’état. This is why they walked to the polling centers to cast their votes for one candidate. Their hope is to erect the solid pillars of the civil state. Their simple dream is to safeguard political pluralism.

In a political environment pervaded by verbal violence, a university professor and a partisan of Nidaa Tounes downgraded the supporters of Marzouki as scum. The heightening of political tension has led to this escalation of linguistic violence and in turn to a state of social anger. Language has the potential and the energy to propel people into action and reaction.

Thousands of Tunisians walked to the streets in popular rallies to express their dissatisfaction with Essebsi and his biting comments, defending their freedom to vote for the man of their choice. They carried slogans picturing themselves not as terrorists but as civilians. Their chief argument is that they elected Marzouki in in the first round on the grounds that he presented a more promising electoral manifesto. He seems for them more convincing owing to their confidence in his democratic project and his achievements as a defender of human rights.

As regards Marzouki’s assets and the nature of those who elected him, Abdel Moneim Mabrouky, a Tunisian resident in Washington, comments on his Facebook page:

"I live in the heart of western modernity and cherish its values of liberty and independence. I love openness and hate fanaticism. I find much pleasure in drinking wine, and I voted for Marzouki because he is a defender of human and civil rights. He safeguards the right to difference and pluralism."

Likewise, Phaedra Motahari wrote on her Facebook page: "I chose Marzuki not because I love him, but because of his call for and commitment to the consecration of democracy, and the preservation of the gains of the revolution".

Huda Idris, a university professor, also said:

"I earned a PhD. degree and speak four languages. I studied in Tunisian universities. I love movies and travel...I'm not a Salafist, and I elected Marzouki because of my confidence in his modernist electoral project."

Against this backdrop, we can see how citizens, by electing the candidate they trust, exercise their freedom of choice, and consider the election not only a right but also a duty that cannot be confiscated and manipulated by any party.

From another angle, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki’s electoral campaign is overshadowed by a variety of abuses and linguist violence. His political discourse has provoked both his political rival and his partisans. On their Facebook pages, Marzouki’s supporters have reiterated a whole host of phrases and statements laden with epithets disparaging Beji Kaid Essebsi as an ugly “traitor,” “ a secret agent,” “a dinosaur,” “a dictator,” and “a mummy.”

Such appellations certainly fall short of providing substantive and objective evaluations of Essebsi’s electoral program and political performance. They are limited to superficial readings of his long political career, readings that revolve only around the demonisation of a presidential candidate rather than around a critical assessment of his skills and defects.

In an interview with France24 on 25 November 2014, Marzouki said: "The accomplices of the dissolved autocratic system of the Democratic Constitutional Rally supported Essebsi." No doubt, such a view requires relativisation. It is true that a significant number of those who voted for the candidate of Nida Tounes are partisans of the old regime. However, many of them are real opponents. Within their ranks, we find Liberals, Nationalists, Leftists, and Bourguibists who backed up aji Caidr Essebsi because of their dismay at the political and economic performance of the Troika coalition government in the transitional period. It follows naturally that one cannot classify all voters as partisans of the ex-regime.

Marzouki went further to proclaim, "the final victory of Beji will push the country towards the brink of political instability." Such an assertion can fall only in the category of psychological intimidation, the ultimate purpose of which is to frighten the electorate of a political rival.

It would be more beneficial for Marzouki to explain the risks that Tunisia may confront if Essebsi ultimately wins the election, including the risks linked to his age, to his complicity with old regime, and to the possibility of the country’s regression to tyranny. Instead, his public speeches were characterized by psychological intimidation that transformed Essebsi into a bogeyman and obliterated his achievements. Despite his flaws one cannot possibly forget his active contribution to the success of the watershed elections of 23 October 2011.

After the declaration of the results of the first round of the election, some of Marzouki’s supporters opted for the tactic of inciting Tunisian southerners against northerners, because the latter voted for Essebsi. But Tunisians have rejected calls to push the country toward civil strife. Currently, there exists a widespread refusal of the political rhetoric calling for revenge and the persecution of those who are nicknamed the old regime’s henchmen. Today, Tunisians know well that the mere recourse to Manichean discourse foreshadows fomenting strife, the division of the country due to regional conflicts, potential threats to social peace, and the failure of the nascent democratic experience.

The majority of Tunisians perceive the election as an assertion of existence and an act of self-expression, thereby turning the Cartesian cogito ergo sum into "I elect, therefore I am". They can no longer accept any control of their minds, any censorship of their thoughts, and any standardisation of their electoral behaviour. it will be better if politicians appropriate the kind of socio-political consciousness which citizens have gained by respecting their right to vote for the presidential candidate of their choice.

It is vital that politicians hone their awareness of what ought to be said, and when, where, and how to speak. It is crucial that they recognise that apologising to the citizens is part and parcel of decorum. It is essential that they know when language should be channelled and utilised to consolidate national union. They should take into account that political rhetoric has, inevitably, strong effects on the masses. But most of all it is quintessential that they acknowledge that that the chilly logic of exclusion and counter-exclusion can in no way boost democratic coexistence. It can only destroy national unity and facilitate the deviation of political life from the peaceful competition for power to intolerance and anarchy.

If the two presidential candidates really take into consideration the welfare of all Tunisians in their respective political agendas, they have to use language positively. They have to send clear messages reassuring Tunisians. The man who will rule Tunisia ought to appear in the image of a president who does not differentiate between people, but who brings them together under the blue sky of the same country, under the banner of freedom and the right to difference rather than under deceptive slogans of the God-leader who claims to possess the absolute truth.

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