Just six years ago…

Tunisian Community of Colorado Marching in the Jan, 2011 MLK 'Marade'...one of the nations largest
The year was 2005 – not all that long ago – that Zine Ben Ali won his third term as president with a not especially credible 99% of the vote. At the time, critics dismissed the results as farcical, little more than yet another attempt to put perfume on the body of a police state known virtually universally for its smothering of any independent voice, democratic sentiment.

Tunisian dissidents viewed the 2005 results as a step in Ben Ali’s drive to make himself president for life, or worse, through a change in the constitution, open the door for his wife, Leila Trabelsi and her clan to seize power. Concerns of this nature, and widespread anger at the clan’s unbridled greed and treachery were a vital part of the mix that ignited the Tunisian revolt which began last December.

Tunisians also feared that his wife, Leila Trabelsi, would try to change the Tunisian constitution in such a way that should some mishap befall Ben Ali, that she would replace him.

Obsessed with a largely non-existent radical fundamentalist threat in the country the Bush Administration defended Ben Ali as an ally of the United States in its “war on terrorism.” But so pervasive was the knowledge of Ben Ali’s abuses that even Bush and Co. was uneasy and embarrassed by the charade – which is saying something.

Prior to the election, Bush Administration diplomats had expressed public concern that a 99% pro-Ben Ali victory would `send the wrong message abroad’ and `undermine arguments that the US wants to bring more democracy to the Middle East.’ Why not rig the results to a more credible, let’s say 75%, to at least give the illusion that democracy had not been completely snuffed out?

Unwilling to make compromises on a 99% victory, still, Ben Ali promised greater democracy would `soon come’ thereafter. But if anything, Ben Ali did just the opposite – tightening his grip on power, repressing the opposition as both the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans swooped up whatever independent economic assets they had not, until then, managed to bring under their control.

But democracy did `soon come’ to Tunisia albeit not the way that Ben Ali would have liked to see it. Last December, a young poor fruit and vegetable peddler without a license that he could ill afford, in the town of Sidi Bouzid in the Tunisian interior, Mohammed Bouazizi, lit the match that ended his life but changed the world. His immolation and subsequent death set off a regional explosion, the Arab Spring or Second Arab Revolt, fueled by a deadly mixture of high unemployment, low wages and political repression.

There was nothing new or even unique about Bouazizi’s exit from this world. While Bouazizi’s suicide somehow made it into the international media, he was not the first one to chose death by fire; another 50 young Middle Easterners, from Morocco to Egypt to Iraq had, without publicity, chosen a similar painful path. And after his death, more immolations followed.

Tunisian Democratic Winds: The 2011 Election

The Arab West - The Magreb
A few days prior to the October 23, 2011 Election Day, a group of Tunisians living in Colorado flew to Los Angeles to cast their votes in Tunisia’s first post-Ben Ali election. In all 288 Tunisians voted in Los Angeles; in so doing they joined 10,000 Tunisians living in the United States deemed eligible to vote for 2 of the seats in Tunisia’s 219 seat legislature.

They were a part of a much larger picture.

Six years and one national rebellion after Ben Ali’s 2005 rigged landslide, by any standard, Tunisia has just completed the first truly democratic election in its history; it was also the first election of the Arab Spring. The election goal was to create a legislative body that will govern the country while it writes a new constitution.

In the period before the election, a considerable – no, an enormous – amount of money flowed into Tunisia in an buy votes. It came from everywhere – the more conservative Arab Gulf States and Saudi Arabia (of course), Europe and North America. Curiously, foreign money did not seem to have greatly affected the election results, reflecting in yet another way, the political maturity of the Tunisian electorate.

The results were astonishing.

  • In a country of 10.5 million with 4.4 registered voters, some 90% of those eligible cast their votes. As Middle East expert and University of Michigan professor, Juan Cole, put it, “the thirst for democracy demonstrated by these figures is mind boggling”
  • Since Zine Ben Ali’s unceremonious and universally welcomed departure from Tunis literally hundreds of political parties formed. By Election Day on October 23, 2011 81 of these parties fielded candidates, half of which were women. 7472 election accredited election observers, among them 533 foreign observers, monitored the proceedings which were deemed among the most democratic ever held in the region
  • The campaigning season was limited to little more than 3 weeks, starting on October 1; as the censorship bureau – the Ministry of Information – was abolished last spring, the media coverage of the candidates was without censorship – honest, open and lively. For example, the most watched TV station was throughout the campaign one of the sharpest critics of the interim prime minister.
  • Fears that an electoral victory by the moderate Islamic Party, Ennadha, would trigger violence, or worse a civil war similar to what erupted in Algeria in 1988 after Islamicists there did well, have proven to be unfounded.

When the vote count was over…

Moncef Marzouki, CPR head with Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda
The big winner in these elections was the moderate Islamic Ennadha (Renaissance) Party which garnered some 45% of the vote and will take 90 of the 219 seats in the new constituent assembly. Two center-left more secular parties – the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol came in second and third Ennada, the CPR taking 30 seats, Ettakatol, 21.

Together the three parties will control 141 or close to 65% of the vote. Should they be able to find the common ground to form a coalition, as is likely, they will be able to define the political direction of Tunisia for sometime into the future.

What explains these results?

While there have been concerns among neo-conservative and Zionist circles, and the French ruling class that the stunning Ennadha victory suggests that some kind of Islamic state based upon Shari’a is just around the corner in Tunisia –for the most part, the response in the United States and Europe has been mostly positive.

Truth be told, the Ennadha victory startled virtually no one in the Middle East, nor I would argue, most observers in the U.S. State Department. In an effort to remain `on the right side of history – at least where Tunisia is concerned, the Obama Administration appears more than willing to make their peace with the results.

The U.S. and many of its allies – many of those same folk who pushed NATO to engage in military operations to help overthrow Khadaffi in Libya, considered the Tunisian elections `orderly and transparent.’ Calling Ennadha’s victory nothing less than “one of the defining events our generation”, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray watched Tunisians voting at polling places in Tunis.

Claims that Ennadha is some form of re-incarnation of the Afghan Taliban or the Tunisian version of the Saudi Wahhabist movement are so far off the mark as to be ludicrous. While of course there will be political differences between Ennadha and its more secular coalition partners there will be no Shari’a in Tunisia nor are the gains that Tunisian women have enjoyed since 1956 likely to be seriously eroded. Ennadha’s public commitment to concentrate on economic and social development, and to find common ground with its coalition partners will dominate. It is likely that religious concerns will be of far less prominence on Tunisia’s future political agenda than some observers might expect.

Instead, Ennadha takes its lead from the more moderate Islamic political trends in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, which Western governments have long made peace with. Should there be elections elsewhere in the Middle East a la Tunisienne, moderate Islamic parties are likely to get a similar percentage of the vote throughout the region.

The most salient feature of these elections, ignored by those pickled by their anti-Islamicist fears, is the degree to which Ben Ali’s political system – the house that Ben Ali built – was overwhelmingly rejected by the Tunisian electorate. The election marks, in a most democratic and un-Stalinist fashion the beginning of a political purge of the Ben Ali political machine.

The blow struck to Ben Ali’s political legitimacy – his legacy – by these elections cannot be overstated. First he and his darling wife are kicked out of the country unceremoniously; then many of the political remnants of his years in power are soundly defeated at the polls.

No party or political figure that had anything to do with the Ben Ali years did well. Even some reform, opposition elements that at one time or another had tactically cooperated with the regime for whatever reason, were punished by the voters.

– The overwhelming percentage of the vote went not simply to opposition parties, but to what could be considered consistent and unflinching opponents of Ben Ali.

– Many of the more well financed parties – some which were giving out food or money, in exchange for votes during the election campaign period – did poorly, as did those parties which were attempts to reconstitute in some form, Ben Ali’s Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique(RCD).Virtually all the attempts to resurrect Ben Ali’s Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) in new forms were not just defeated at the polls – they were pulverized.

– Interestingly, all three of the parties leading the vote were clearly and unambiguously throughout the years, openly opposed to Ben Ali’s rule, be it Ennahda, CPR or Ettakatol. The campaigns of the CPR and Ettakotal went largely ignored by the Tunisian media, yet when the vote came in, they did quite well, again an indication of the degree to which Tunisians were voting against the Ben Ali political machine.

– The leading figures of CPR and Ettakatol, Dr. Moncef Marzouki and Mustapha Ben Jafaar have unblemished records of not collaborating with the Ben Ali regime. For example, Marzouki campaigned on the radical formula; “We are going to redistribute the wealth; we are going to redistribute the power.”

– In the same vein, neither the CPR nor Ettakatol attacked Islam or Ennadha per se, while those more secular parties that attacked the Ennadha’s Islamic politics, did poorly, extremely so. In part it is probably because the anti-Islamic card is precisely what Ben Ali played for a quarter of century to maintain his power.

Concerning some of the motivation specifically behind Ennadha’s large showing, North African expert Vincent Geisser (co-editor: Habib Bourguiba: La Trace et L’Heritage) points to a number of its underlining themes

– An attempt on the part of Tunisians to return to ‘normalcy’, ie go back to work, end the period of political turmoil and support for what is seen as a cautious approach to the Tunisian Revolution; the country as a whole feels confidence in the leadership of Ennadha – more secure – than with the other parties.

– It was a sympathy vote for the party that had suffered the worst repression of any under Ben Ali’s rule – whose sons and daughters had been undergone arrest and torture and had to flee the country in great numbers. This vote is not unlike the support that European communist parties received at the end of World War 2 as a result of their stand in the resistance movements

– While under Ben Ali, virtually no opposition political party was able to build anything of a national constituency, a network of families of political prisoners existed throughout the country during the Ben Ali years. With the fall of Ben Ali, that network came together countrywide in large measure in support of Ennadha.

Beja - farming country in the heart of Tunisia's poor interior. photo credit: Free Tunisia
There is still much work to do to solidify the gains made since Ben Ali was kicked out. Among the likely results – a rather thorough reworking of the Tunisian judiciary cleaning out a goodly portion of Ben Ali appointees followed by a restructuring of the Tunisian internal security apparatus, main repressive hammer in Ben Ali’s hand. Poverty and unemployment still stalk the country’s interior; without some progress on these issues, it is likely that Tunisians will take to the streets once more

A constitution needs to be written and another set of elections take place before the `New Tunisia’ is on a solid and stable path politically. This is no small order. While the people of Tunisia have expressed their confidence in Ennadha’s moderate brand of Islam – and undoubtedly legitimate sympathy for the repression the movement suffered in the Ben Ali years, support for the movement remains conditional.

To govern effectively in this transition period, Ennadha will have to enter into coalitions with secular center and center-left parties. Ennadha political future depends upon its ability to work well in such coalitions. Failure to do so, or to push religious and cultural questions to the forefront could paralyze the transition period, divide the country and ultimately shrink the confidence and political capital of the Islamic party.


  • Vincent Geisser’s reflections on the Tunisian Election (in French)