Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Tunisian Elections: A Choice between Personalities and Programs

Tunisian Elections: A Choice between Personalities and Programs

Thursday, 12 September, 2019 - 17:45

Perhaps, only Tunisia among the countries of the “Arab Spring” has managed political change without radical transformation or slipping into wars whose outcome is impossible to guess.

Looking at the Tunisian experiment since independence, one can confidently say that the country’s leaders, despite their differences and mistakes, respected the principles and institutions that have secured and protected Tunisian society. These are:

- The “civil” nature of the state; as ambiguous as this term may be.

- Keeping the military as defenders of the country, and far from daily politics.

- The freedom of association and assembly, including trade unions and political parties.

“The Supreme Mujahid” Habib Bourguiba must duly be credited in building the “civilian state” on a solid base. Indeed, “Bourguibism” managed to carry Tunisia forward until its leader’s attempt to export his experience to the Arab world. Here he collided with an emotional and divided Arab world day dreaming about “nationalism”, Arab unity from the Atlantic to the Gulf, “Revolutionary Command Councils”, and “Liberating Palestine now rather than tomorrow”!

Swimming against the “Arabist” tide, forced Bourguiba not only to return to his Tunisian cocoon, but also led to condemn anyone who attempted to analyze the situation of the Arab situation, and examine what was really happening not what was being concocted by the “propaganda machines” of one-party regimes. This period ended only after the June 5th 1967 defeat. It was then that the Arabs woke up to the frightening void.

However, despite this “awakening” caused by the defeat, resort to pragmatism had to wait for a while because the ready-made alternative then was “people’s liberation wars”. In fact, as the credibility of Arab regimes suffered, masses turned to supporting the Palestinian “Fedayeen” resistance organizations; and thousands of angry and frustrated Arab youth joined these organizations claiming various nationalistic and totalitarian ideologies.

Now a new problem appeared; the contradiction between the logics of “state” and “revolution”. The former, followed by Tunisia was facing the latter, which swept even many who still believed in “state” institutions.

Furthermore, some regimes began to adopt the “revolutionary” rhetoric while turning its states into fiefdoms, “Arabism” as they were being dominated by sectarianism and tribalism, and “socialism” when its strongmen were encouraging “mafias” and corruption. This tragic situation continued until the end of “the Cold War”, the collapse of the USSR, and the emergence of the giant of “political religion” as an alternation to the Left in Europe and other parts of the world.

In Bourguiba’s Tunisia, “the Supreme Mujahid” had become a faded image of his former self, although the solid base of his political experiment remained almost intact.

Even when General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the army and intelligence boss, forced Bourguiba into retirement under the pretext of “saving the Bourguibism”, he failed throughout around a quarter of a century in shaking its three greatest achievements: the “civil” state, non-politicized military and freedom of association and assembly.

On the other hand, just like Bourguiba, whose aura faded when he overstayed in power, allowing his relatives to meddle in the affairs of government; Ben Ali fell for nepotism, as well as attempts to stifle and weaken political freedoms.

However, if Bourguiba could thank his historical charisma and independence heritage, and political skills for keeping his “legitimacy” strong, Ben Ali’s attempts were crude, and sometimes inept, which resulted in him gradually losing the initiative, and bringing together many opposition groups. Then, between late 2010 and early 2011 a popular uprising was sparked after Mohammad Bouzizi, a poor street vendor, set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his wheelbarrow. When the army refused to put down the uprising, Ben Ali decided to resign rather than undermine and destroy the country.

Today the political spectrum, represented by no less than 26 presidential candidates, is a testimony in favor of Tunisia. Despite some problems, there is enough evidence of law and order, active and relevant trade unions, confidant women, political parties with programs and a judiciary capable of ensuring proper and fair elections.

Moreover, since Ben Ali’s resignation, several figures from various political groups have tried their luck in power during the last eight years. These included President Moncef Al-Marzouki, representing the nationalist Left, the Ennahda Islamist prime ministers Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh, independent prime minister Mehdi Jomaa and Habib Essid, and then, “Bouguibism” returned in force with the election of the veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi as president. The latter in turn, chose Youssef Chahed as prime minister. It is Essebsi’s death that sparked the early elections.

Given all this chaotic – and sometimes opportunistic – diversity, Tunisian realistic politics has been in full flight, accommodating deals, and organizing differences in a responsible manner. Indeed, as Tunisia goes through the countdown for early elections, the political scene seems healthy in its diversity, contradictions and aspiring for coexistence, without doubting the identity of the country or loyalty to it.

Yesterday as well as today, Tunisia enjoys consensus on causes and issues that garner no consensus in most other Arab countries; this despite the raging war in Libya to the east, and confused historical developments in Algeria to the west. Such consensus portends well, and promises that disagreements do not become crises, opposition does not develop into exclusion and victory does not lead to abolition. It also promises an understanding that the greatest outcome of democracy, anywhere in the world, is the chance of correcting mistakes after they are made, not necessarily avoiding them.

Today, as they look at an arena full of candidates and programs, Tunisian voters are entitled to congratulate themselves, and then build their choices on realistic programs, not the charisma of individuals. Only programs are capable of solving Tunisia’s problem, heading by handling the economy and securing order and stability.

These days, there are no more historic world leaders, contrary to what populist politicians are trying to convince us.

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks