Essebsi and Tunisia: The support of Ben Ali's elites

Essebsi and Tunisia: The support of Ben Ali's elites
In the first of a two-part series, we look at how Nidaa Tounes, with the help of the remnants of Ben Ali's regime, has built a political machine out of popular fears of political Islam.
6 min read
15 December, 2014
The political machine Essebsi built has swept him into power [AFP]
Months after the adoption of their new constitution, Tunisians voted for their new parliament. Nidaa Tounes, (in Arabic, literally "Call of Tunis") - the party that won the largest number of seats, has been charged with forming a new government.

If its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, wins the runoff in Sunday's presidential election, Nidaa Tounes will dominate the political institutions of state. This scenario was described by many as "the return of the old regime".

Tunisians has been talking about this "risk" throughout the country's transition to democracy, but the discussion never assumed as much salience as it has at present. Many Tunisians consider Nidaa Tounes to be the new incarnation of the dissolved Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the political party of former president Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, before the revolution. Many others have contested this simplistic analysis.

The birth of Nidaa Tounes

Nidaa Tounes came kicking and screaming into the world on 16 June 2012. Essebsi, then president of the transitional government after the fall of Ben Ali, held a large meeting to launch his "Call of Tunisia".

The meeting was organised days after the attack on the El Abdellia art gallery by a group of salafists. In his speech at the launch, Essebsi focused on the threat posed by the "theocratic projects" of various Islamist groups.

He said the government of the Troika, a coalition of governing parties headed by the Islamist Ennahdha party, was threatening "The State".

Quoting the Quranic verse: "And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided," Essebsi called on the people of Tunis to join his new political party to confront Ennahdha.

He insisted his call was addressed to all Tunisians without exception, even the supporters of former president Habib Bourguiba. On that day, the nomenklatura, the high officials of Ben Ali's regime, found a way to protect their interests by rallying around Essebsi.

The creation of Ennahdha's political machine took years, but Nidaa Tounes was built in a few months.

Two weeks later, Nidaa Tounes was officially recognised by the Tunisian authorities as a new political party. It had not announced any policies, nor had it embraced any specific ideology, but it did get support from Tunisians from a variety of backgrounds.

In the internal structure of Nidaa Tounes, we find not only important former members of the RCD, but also former members of leftist parties and some independent liberalists.

Their common objective is to protect "The State" from Islamists. Some international journalists have even described Nidaa Tounes as an "Anti-Islamist Party". This does not mean it is separates politics from religion. Essebsi frequently quotes the Quran in his speeches, and he was one of the two candidates that ended their election statement with a verse from the Quran. In Essebsi's case, we can consider religion to be a political tool.

Apart from the political cult of Essebsi, there is another element that links supporters of Nidaa Tounes: the desire to protect the past.

The Nomenklatura

The parallel evolution of the dictatorship and the private sector under Ben Ali led to the construction of a socio-economic network that monopolised control of production at the expense of all other Tunisians.

In February 2011, the government of Mohamed Ghannouchi decided to confiscate the assets of more than 100 members of the Ben Ali family.

The legislative decree of confiscation, published some weeks later when Essebsi was prime minister, specified that any other person proven to have obtained real or personal property or rights by virtue of a relationship with the Ben Ali clan would have their assets confiscated as well.

The list of Ben Ali's business elite is still being finalised. Struggling to find a place in the new political sphere, some members of the nomenklatura joined Ennahdha just after the elections of October 2011.

But a majority of the country's business elite felt threatened by this mechanism for implementing the rule of law and transitional justice. Instead of supporting the rule of law, Tunisian businessmen prefer stable political networks, and Nidaa Tounes is the only party they felt strong enough to protect their interests.

Some are already members of Essebsi's party, while others are financing it and many others support it politically.

Essebsi and the other founders of Nidaa Tounes have already proved their guile by protecting the social status of members of the nomenklatura.

Before the elections, one of the most important battles of Nidaa Tounes was its opposition to the "Immunisation of the revolution" bill. The purpose of the bill was to bar former RCD leaders, or anyone who had called for Ben Ali's reielection in 2014 [referred to as the mounachidin], from running for office.

Nidaa Tounes forced Ennahdha to abandon the bill, and instead reached an understanding of sorts on the importance of transitional justice.

Today the majority of Tunisians are convinced Ennahdha is related, directly or indirectly, to the assassination of Belaid and Brahmi.

However, since the announcement of the preliminary results of the parliamentary elections, Essebsi has attacked the Truth and Dignity Commission and called for a revision of the law about transitional justice.

One of the roles of this commission was to uncover the people responsible for grave violations of human rights. Many members of Nidaa Tounes are naturally concerned by the activities of this commission.

Even Essebsi himself is reportedly concerned by the transitional justice process, if justice means that he could be implicated in the repression and torture of Bourgiba's opponents when he was Bourguiba's minister of interior and director of national safety. Many have a vested interest in aborting any transitional justice project.

The machine

After the creation of Nidaa Tounes, the nomenklatura has been transformed into a strong "political machine". The use of the term "political machine" dates back to the 1870s in the United States, but Tunisians use the word "machine" to describe an informal organisation created by politicians to achieve their goals.

The creation of Ennahdha's political machine took years. But Nidaa Tounes was built in a few months. Within six months of its creation, polling organisations and the media were presenting it as the biggest political party after Ennahdha, though it had not even contested an election. After the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leftist and prominent anti-Islamist politician, Nidaa Tounes unquestionably became the largest political party.

The media played an important role in the transformation of Nidaa Tounes into a political behemoth. The same techniques used under Ben Ali are being used today to manipulate public opinion. Many journalists who polished the image of Ben Ali's regime while tarnished the image of his opponents are intentionally or unintentionally doing the same job today.

The multiple mistakes made by other political parties have helped Nidaa Tounes to present itself as the saviour of Tunisia.

When Ennahdha was accused of being involved in the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, the fear of political Islam among a large section of society became of key political importance. The confusion and conflation of the terms "terrorism", "Islamism", "jihadism", "salafism", "theology", "political assassination" and "violence" in the media and in the political discourse created a confusion between the concepts and led to a misunderstanding of the complexity of the conflict in Tunisia.

The discourse of Nidaa Tounes leaders was built on this confusion, and their promise to restore stability.

Today, the majority of Tunisians are convinced Ennahdha is related, directly or indirectly, to the assassination of Belaid, and Brahmi. All political parties that refused to present themselves as against Ennahdha have been sanctioned by voters.

And now, on 21 December 2014, Tunisians will choose between Essebsi and interim president Moncef Marzouki, who has yet to be endorsed by Ennahdha.

Read part two of this essay, 'Nostalgia for the supposed glories of the past', here.