Tunisia’s presidential elections next month mark a democratic milestone in a region forcefully fragmented by the Arab Spring. Although there is a long way to go, it is hoped that the results might show the way for the nation’s troubled neighbours.
On a hot, sweaty Friday morning in September, a noisy and boisterous spectacle was unfolding in the new offices of the isie: the Tunisian election authority. A group of rowdy supporters followed by equally disorderly cameramen crammed into an office to watch a middle-aged man sign some paperwork.
After he was done his entourage erupted into deafening ululations as he pushed past the crowd to leave the office. Yet another candidate had been registered for the first freely contested presidential elections in Tunisia’s history.
As 2014 draws to an end, Tunisia is about to make a leap towards democracy. After parliamentary elections in October, presidential elections will follow with a run-off expected in December.
Almost four years since the Arab Spring began, its birthplace looks like the only hope left for democracy in the region. The stakes and expectations are high, not only in Tunisia but internationally, too. So it’s no wonder that the pressure Professor Mohammed Chafik Sarsar is under is tangible.
The quiet law professor has been put in charge of organising three elections in three months. “I loved my work as a university professor,” he says. “Now I am a public figure, everyone knows me.”
To prove the point, delegates who have arrived to attend election observation training interrupt us almost every five minutes. “I have to greet everyone otherwise I could be accused of being partisan,” he says apologetically.
For months Sarsar and his team have worked long hours to make sure everything goes smoothly. From registering voters and candidates in and outside the country to questions of security, Sarsar’s to-do list is long. “Tunisia is the only country that’s still on track after the Arab Spring; we have the chance to come up with an exportable model,” he says.
While neighbouring Libya seems to be violently falling apart, a bloody civil war rages in Syria, and Egypt stands accused of having reverted to authoritarianism, 2014 is on track to become Tunisia’s year. In January, Tunisia’s constituent assembly members – a rag-tag group with hardly any political experience – breathed some new life and meaning into the parliament building and passed a milestone constitution. It had taken more than two years, four drafts and some considerable international pressure to get the text passed.
In exchange for adopting a new constitution, the governing coalition of the Islamist Ennahda party and two smaller secular parties agreed to step down and hand over power to a technocratic government. The importance of Ennahda’s commitment to enter a so-called national dialogue and agree to cede power is at the heart of what sets Tunisia’s transition apart. From the outside it remains an astonishing step for a party whose members were violently repressed.
“During a political transition you can’t dominate: you need to build a broad coalition. We became aware of that after the Egyptian experience last year,” says Ali Larayedh, who stepped down as prime minister in January. The reserved 59-year-old is one of the most senior members of the Islamist movement. Under the dictatorship he was sentenced to death on two occasions, tortured and held in solitary confinement for years.
After the revolution, Larayedh served as interior minister as well as prime minister in the first democratically elected government. But despite securing a landslide victory and sweeping into parliament in 2011, the Ennahda-led government had to deal with the same administration and security apparatus that had been there under the previous regime; it was an uneasy relationship that according to some who witnessed it was characterised by sabotage, smear and vitriol. “People evolve; we are all learning democracy,” says Larayedh. But was it difficult for him personally to take over a ministry that had colluded in the repression of political Islam? “I don’t want to look back,” he says.
“I didn’t spend time in prison to seek revenge. Dictatorship didn’t end overnight, it was a way of life. It will take us a generation to instil real democracy here.” Larayedh had to take the flak for the chaos of the post-revolutionary period. “We had to immerse ourselves in the chaos of liberty after the order of dictatorship,” he says. Ennahda has a broad base, is highly organised and is expected to win a sizeable share of the vote in parliament. But the party has decided not to present its own presidential candidate.
“We want a president with a broad democratic mandate; a consensus candidate,” says Larayedh. “Our democracy is young; even if we have political support we need to work with the different interest groups in the country like the unions, the administration and industrial groups.” The man who has a decent chance of becoming the first democratically elected Tunisian president says he has something that Ennahda is constantly accused of lacking: experience and the backing of the Tunisian establishment.
Beji Caid Essebsi turns 88 this month but remains jovial and confident. In the 1970s he served as an adviser to Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president who is still revered by some Tunisians. Bourguiba is everywhere in Tunisia: every city has at least one avenue, school and square named after him. He is omnipresent in Essebsi’s office, too: there are at least three photographs and a giant bronze bust of the former president.
Essebsi leads the largest opposition bloc in the outgoing parliament. A hotchpotch of secular independents and members of the previous regime, it presents itself as a counterbalance to the political Islamist programme presented by Ennahda. Other than that, Essebsi’s vision for a democratic Tunisia could be seen as lacking ambition. “Now is not the time for reforms but stability,” he says.
The economic challenges for Tunisia’s next government should not be underestimated. Growth remains low, foreign investment fell by 26 per cent this year and the public coffers are empty. Antonio Nucifora, who was the World Bank’s country economist for Tunisia until last year, knows this all too well. “Sometimes the international community rushes to underline the positive evolution that has been taking place in Tunisia and is not necessarily paying enough attention to the possible pitfalls ahead,” he says.
For Nucifora, who estimates that the country could perform two or three times better than it currently does, only comprehensive structural reforms are the way forward. But in a system still characterised by cronyism and corruption, getting reforms past highly organised and influential interest groups will be difficult for whichever government takes over. It’s hard to grasp what is wrong with the Tunisian economy while staying in the capital or in any of the well-developed cities in the north of the country. But as you take the highway towards the interior of the country the discrepancies become more evident.
You drive past makeshift petrol stations selling smuggled fuel in green and red canisters. The vegetation is less verdant once you leave the fertile Cap Bon peninsula behind; the roads are lined by cacti, agave bushes and olive trees. After an almost five-hour drive we reach Sidi Bou Zid: the birthplace of the 2011 revolution. Like in other cities in the interior of Tunisia, unemployment and poverty rates are higher than in the capital. But Sidi Bouzid is also the region with the highest number of voter registrations in the country. In a barbershop that seems like a throwback to 1960s Tunisia, 50-year-old Brahim is getting a haircut and shave. “Meat prices have doubled since the revolution,” says the father of four, who works as a school inspector in the local administration.
It’s a concern shared by the shop owner himself. “We have freedom of speech, we are no longer shackled but everything has become more expensive,” says 52-year-old Taher. “What we need is foreign investment and more jobs.” Both men plan to vote: Brahim for Beji Caid Essebsi,“because he represents a modern Tunisia”, while Taher is still undecided. Three streets away, 26-year-old Asma and 22-year-old Houiem highlight why Tunisia’s economy has failed its younger generation. Like many other young Tunisians, both women are highly skilled: Asma has an IT degree; Houiem has a degree in international business and speaks Italian. But as the Tunisian economy has failed to create enough growth and jobs in value-added sectors, Asma and Houiem are now working for a salary of tnd150 (€66) a month in a shop selling clothes and both live with their parents.
“The local economy has created more spinsters,” says Asma, smiling. “There is no investment, no employment, no decent education, no infrastructure here,” adds Houiem. “All we want is a party to take care of Sidi Bouzid.” Back in the capital, 35-year-old entrepreneur Taher Mestiri has just emerged from a working lunch with Tunisia’s minister of technology. Mestiri, who runs his own IT services company, is convinced that Tunisia’s well-trained IT graduates can do better than selling clothes. “I don’t expect a government to come up with miracles,” he says. “The government is trying to change things but very slowly; the world of technology moves rapidly.”
Still, Mestiri has a five-year plan for the sector: “Our developers are winning awards worldwide but they choose to leave the country. I want this country to become the Silicon Valley of the region.” He thinks the election is important in terms of bringing long-term stability but says ultimately it will be down to him and his peers – once again – to move the country forward. “We need to push ourselves to be the change. We cannot wait for the change to come. It’s the responsibility of our generation.”