What do the Tunisian elections tell us?

Since the start of the Arab uprisings over three years ago, regional onlookers have often turned to Tunisia for answers.

While other countries have descended into turmoil or seen their democratic voices quickly suppressed, Tunisia appears to be walking the gradual, non-violent path of reform. In Egypt, comparisons between local developments and those in its North African neighbor have always been present.

Changes in Tunisia always presage similar ones here, or so the reasoning goes. Over the past year, however, the two country’s different experiences with their powerful Islamist parties has been vastly different.

Mohamed al-Sahby al-Khalafawy, a researcher in the University of Tunis Faculty of Law and Political Science, answers Mada Masr’s questions regarding the truth of what is happening in Tunisia, and how accurate the comparison with Egypt is.

Mada Masr: The question of how the Muslim Brotherhood was dealt with in both the Egyptian and Tunisian contexts is a big one. The commonly held belief is that they were overthrown violently here (Egypt), and voted out there. Is this accurate? Was the Brotherhood deposed in Tunisia to begin with?

Mohamed al-Khalafawy: In the recent elections, Ennahda (the Islamist political party) got almost one third of the votes, thereby coming in second place, and confirming that its popularity needs to be taken into consideration by opponents.

The overthrow of the Islamist administration in Egypt was violent, eliminating the Brotherhood from the political scene. Meanwhile, Tunisia took a different course, in which Ennahda may become part of a national coalition government. This could mean taking charge of several prominent offices, or leading the opposition movement formed by Nida Tunis, taking control of the parliament’s finance committee (according to the constitution), and monitoring the government.

In a nutshell, to analyze what happened to Tunisia’s Islamists by democratic measures, we find that Ennahda has weathered a power transition, and the parliament’s majority has become an opposing minority. However, put into the context of events that unfolded in Egypt, it would seem that Tunisia’s Islamists have consolidated their position in the political scene. No one can bypass them now or in the future without resorting to drastic measures.

MM: The Egyptian reality imposes the duality of Islamists versus the old regime. In Tunisia, it seems that the alternative to Ennahda is Nida Tunis, packed with figures of [ousted President] Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. Does this duality actually exist in Tunisia? Can associates of the old regime return to the political arena under the umbrella of the secular Nida party facing the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood?

MK: Nida Tunis did not draw figures from the former regime. It drew the middle and junior officers of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, Ben Ali’s party, who have maintain a certain amount of clout that did not abate following the revolution. Following the 2011 elections, a need emerged for an organization or a party that would bring equilibrium to the political scene, defending those opposed to the Islamization of the state.

Who was opposed? The answers varied. Beji Caid al-Sebsi came forward as the one who united members of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (the former ruling party) with a handful of democrats and figures from the left. He succeeded in introducing himself and his party, Nida Tunis, as the only alternative to Ennahda, boasting the fact that his party includes members of the dismantled DCR.

This alternative was based on competency and knowledge of how the state is run in opposition to the Islamists and their allies’ apparent inability to run it. There was also an underlying discourse on Islamization and [the first president of the Republic of Tunisia] Habib Bourguiba’s approach to the dilemma of the state’s relationship with religion.

Eventually, members of the former regime managed to normalize their relationship with the new political arena, and some of them even reached the parliament. Therefore, the existing duality differs, depending from which perspective it is viewed. Some may classify it as new versus old, while others would see it as Islamists versus secularists, or those experienced in running the country versus those inexperienced. Yet the situation is more complicated than all those propositions, and a deeper analysis cannot be deduced in one short answer.

MM: The military institution is the strongest player in Egypt. Members of the Tunisian Ennahda party discussed this after former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, saying that keeping the military out of politics has preserved democracy in Tunisia. What do you think about this?

MK: Whether we approve of Bourguiba’s legacy or not, there is no doubt that the founder of the modern Tunisian state succeeded in creating a military doctrine in total compliance with the civil authority, maintaining the state’s institutions and dismissive of political action. This kept the Tunisian military from direct interference in the form of governance.

Since independence, Tunisia has been ruled by “civilians” (even though Ben Ali was a general, he followed the lead of Bourguiba’s policy concerning the military, and he was probably more radical in keeping the army away from politics). Egypt, on the other hand, has been ruled by the military since July 1952. Based on this historical fact alone, the Tunisian military institution can be considered a main contributor in the democratic transition.

One question remains, however, which only the leaders of the Tunisian armed forces can answer: What would the Tunisian military’s response be in case the democratic process was reversed?

MM: The deep state — or, in other words, the bureaucracy inherited from the old regime — plays a major role in Egyptian politics. Is this the same with Tunisia?

MK: In his book The Arab Political Mind, Mohamed Abed al-Jabiri discusses the tripartite relationship between doctrine, tribe and gain. This trilogy was what instigated Ennahda’s rise to power, and the reason it failed to deal with the state’s administrative body. By observing Ennahda’s performance, we see how the Islamists have essentially evolved: from adopting the rhetoric that they were fighting conspiracies against them, to giving up power due to their inability to run state affairs.

As some Ennahda leaders and government officials have confirmed publicly and privately, there seemed to be a kind of animosity between the Islamists and the state officials. This feeling was aggravated when the Ennahda party did not base ministerial appointments on relative expertise, but rather on past struggles and grievances, which hindered the regular running of affairs. Without going into details, this mismanagement by the Ennahda party was countered by a “natural” animosity toward Islamists in power from cabinet members who belonged to the former regime (whether willingly or not).

Under these circumstances, the state’s bureaucracy played a major role in the Islamists losing their parliamentary majority. On the one hand, Ennahda’s ability to run the country was resisted, and its governments were impeded from functioning normally. Combined with other factors, this led to the complete failure of these governments. On the other hand, several members within the country’s institutions joined the Nida Tunis Party and worked on promoting it.

MM: Where did the bloc excluded from this polarization, such as leftist parties, go? What caused their decline?

MK: The classical left (consisting of a mixed bag of nationalists and Marxists) united in the Popular Front, which won 15 seats in parliament. Many people saw this as a positive culmination of sweeping polarization in the elections.

The main challenge which the Popular Front had to face was to stay unified during the elections, which they managed to do. But a more difficult challenge remains, namely to maintain this unity throughout the current parliamentary term, especially with the conflicting members’ opinions regarding the practicality of joining the government of Nida Tunis, a party that is considered the descendent of Ben Ali’s regime, and a materialization of rightist economic and social policies.

The centrist parties were terribly defeated, receiving less than 10 parliament seats combined. For some of them, this was the price they paid for allying with the Ennahda movement: punitive voting. Others, however, witnessed a vote fallout due to the swing toward Nida Tunis, especially considering that these parties failed to set themselves apart from Sebsi’s party, despite the fact that they indeed have political differences.

The elections were also marked by the Free Patriotic Union coming in third place. This party represents a popular right stream reminiscent of Europe in the 1920s, led by a business tycoon who has strong influence over the world of sports and media. All political sides in Tunisia agree that it is an unhealthy phenomenon which may negatively affect the future of the democratic process.

The political arena has definitely not reached its final form yet, and the differences causing rifts in Nida Tunis, together with Sebsi’s old age of 88 years, will inevitably lead to many divisions in the majority’s party. This will clear the way for parties from the center and the left to regroup and regain some of their influence lost in the previous elections.

The municipal elections expected to be held in the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016 may be a very good opportunity to do so.

MM: Where does social justice and economic rights come into play within the current context?

Since Ennahda stepped down from power last January, social movements have notably declined. Some relate this to the truce between the Tunisian General Labor Union, the country’s national trade union and the new interim government. The economic and social question was definitely present in this year’s elections in a manner stronger than the 2011 elections. Future governments will have to face the inevitable challenge to improve the social standards for all citizens, as the economic situation is almost disastrous.

The national trade union and the Union for Commerce, Industry and Handicrafts will have a clear standpoint. Without planning new policies to tackle these issues, the situation will inevitably explode.

MM: Why are the youth, popularly known as the spirit of the Tunisian revolution, missing in action?

MK: Some observers and actors would say that the Tunisian revolution was less of a youth revolution and more of a revolution of some youth. This age group has largely refrained from participation in politics and even in elections. The future president of Tunisia will definitely be over 70 years old, and the youth are not concerned about this. Today, there is a preemptive question to be raised: Will the youth have an active role in making demands and pushing for change in the next phase? Personally, I believe this is unlikely to happen given the political balance reached by the 2014 elections.

MM: Apparently, the Tunisian public is divided between the Islamists and their opponents, even if the latter included figures from Ben Ali’s party. How will this affect the political situation? Will there be cooperation between both sides, or will it be a competition to the extent of trying to paralyze the party in power, like what happened in Egypt?

MK: To answer your question directly, I think that the conflict of interests among the different political forces may take the same form of the contradictions between political forces in established democracies. Accordingly, I believe that cooperation will formulate the next phase.

The factor missing in this analysis, though, is foreign interference in the Tunisian course. Some regional and international forces are positively contributing to reach a truce that would make Tunisia a successful model. Other Arab forces may push for interrupting all this, suiting the interests of some local actors to build a new corrupt and oppressive system.


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