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PORTSIDE  November 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE November 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Tunisia Elections: The Real Thing This Time

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Date:

Sat, 5 Nov 2011 15:42:51 -0400

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Tunisia Elections: The Real Thing This Time

By Rob Prince
TruthOut
November 2, 2011

http://www.fpif.org/articles/tunisia_elections_the_real_thing_this_time

It was only 2005 - not all that long ago - that Zine
Ben Ali won his third term as Tunisia's president with
99 percent of the vote. At the time, critics dismissed
the results as farcical, yet another attempt to put
perfume on a police state known virtually universally
for smothering any independent voice or democratic
sentiment.

Tunisian dissidents viewed the 2005 results as a step
in Ben Ali's campaign to make himself president for
life - or worse, through a change in the constitution,
to 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.

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 the Bush administration was uneasy and embarrassed
by the charade - which is saying something.

Prior to the election, U.S. diplomats had expressed
their concern that a 99-percent victory for Ben Ali
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 something
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-percent victory,
Ben Ali promised greater democracy would "soon come"
thereafter. But if anything, he did just the opposite,
tightening his grip on power and repressing the
opposition as both the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans swept
up whatever independent economic assets they had not
already.

And then Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor young vegetable
peddler, lit the match that ended his life but changed
the world. His immolation 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.

Winds of Change

Six years and one national rebellion after the
fraudulent 2005 election, Tunisia has just completed
the first truly democratic election in its history. It
was also the first election of the Arab Spring. The
election was held to create a legislative body that
will govern the country while it writes a new
constitution.

In the period before the election, a considerable
amount of money flowed into Tunisia in an attempt to
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 people with 4.4 million
registered voters, perhaps as high as 90 percent of
those eligible cast their votes, including many from
the interior who had not formally registered but who
had the right, according to the law, to participate.
Eighty-one parties fielded candidates, half of whom
were women. Over 7,000 accredited election observers,
among them 533 foreign observers, monitored the
proceedings, which were deemed among the most
democratic ever held in the region.

As Middle East expert and University of Michigan
professor Juan Cole put it, "the thirst for democracy
demonstrated by such [statistics] is mind-boggling."

The campaigning season was limited to little more than
three weeks. As the Ministry of Information was
abolished last spring, the media coverage of the
candidates was without censorship - honest, open, and
lively. The most watched TV station throughout the
campaign was one of the sharpest critics of the interim
prime minister.

Fears that an electoral victory by the moderate Islamic
Party Ennahda would trigger violence - or worse, a
civil war similar to what erupted in Algeria in the
early 1990s - have proven to be unfounded.

The Results

And certainly, the big winner in these elections was
Ennahda (Renaissance), which garnered some 41.5 percent
of the vote and will take 90 of the 219 seats in the
new constituent assembly. Two center-left secular
parties - the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and
Ettakatol - came in second and third, respectively,
with the CPR taking 30 seats and Ettakatol 21.

Together the three parties will control 141 seats, or
close to 65 percent of the assembly. Should they 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.

Although there have been concerns circulating among
neoconservative circles and the French ruling class
that the stunning Ennahda victory suggests some kind of
Sharia state just around the corner in Tunisia, the
response in the United States and Europe has been
mostly positive.

Truth be told, the Ennahda victory startled virtually
no one in the Middle East, nor I would argue, 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 peace with the results. U.S. Ambassador
Gordon Gray, who visited polling places in Tunis, even
called Ennahda's victory "one of the defining events of
our generation."

Claims that Ennahda is some reincarnation of the Afghan
Taliban or a 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 Ennahda and its more secular coalition
partners, there will be no Taliban-style Sharia in
Tunisia, nor are the gains that Tunisian women have
enjoyed since 1956 likely to be seriously eroded.
Ennahda'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, Ennahda 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 similar percentages of the vote
throughout the region.

Rejecting Ben Ali's Legacy

The most salient feature of these elections, ignored by
those pickled by their Islamophobia, 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
fashion, the beginning of a political purge of the Ben
Ali machine.

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

No party or political figure that had anything to do
with the Ben Ali years did well. Many of the more well-
financed parties - some of which were giving out food
or money in exchange for votes - did poorly, as did any
party that attempted to reconstitute Ben Ali's
Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD). Even
some reformist opposition elements that at one time or
another had tactically cooperated with the regime were
punished by the voters. Indeed, all three of the
leading parties - Ennahda, CPR, and Ettakatol - were
clear and unambiguous public opponents of the Ben Ali
regime over the years.

 Vanquished too was the Ben Ali style of politicking.
 CPR leader Dr. Moncef Marzouki, for example,
 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 Ennahda per se, while
 those more secular parties that did attack Ennahda's
 Islamic politics fared quite poorly. In part this is
 probably because of Ben Ali's old habit of playing the
 anti-Islamic card to maintain his power.

North African expert Vincent Geisser has identified a
number of underlining themes to Ennahda's large
showing. Foremost perhaps was a Tunisian desire to
"return to normalcy" after months of tumult, indicating
that the country as a whole feels more confidence in
the leadership of Ennahda than of other parties.
Second, the total may have represented 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 is not unlike the
support that European communist parties received at the
end of World War II as a result of their role in the
resistance movements. Finally, although no opposition
party was able to build a national constituency under
Ben Ali, Ennahda benefited from the support of a
network of families of political prisoners that came
together after the fall of the regime.

Work Left to Do

There is still much work to do to solidify the gains
made since Ben Ali was kicked out. Among the likely
next steps are a thorough reworking of the Tunisian
judiciary, the expulsion of remaining regime
appointees, and a restructuring of the internal
security apparatus. Poverty and unemployment still
stalk the country's interior, as well. 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 needs to take place before the "New Tunisia"
is on a solid and stable path politically. This is no
small order. Although the people of Tunisia have
expressed their confidence in Ennahda's moderate brand
of Islamism - and their undoubtedly sincere 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,
Ennahda will have to enter into coalitions with secular
centrist and center-left parties. Ennahda's political
future depends on 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 political capital of the Islamist party.

_____________

Rob Prince teaches at the University of Denver's
Korbel School of International Studies. He writes
the blog Colorado Progressive Jewish News, now
in its eighth year.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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