Tunisian transition is complete, but where does it lead?

Tunisian transition is complete, but where does it lead?
Tunisians have elected Essebsi in spite of concerns that he marks a return to pre-revolution Tunisia. Nostalgia, an economic downturn and a deteriorating security situation all played their part. But many will now be watching for signs of autocratic tendencies.
4 min read
22 December, 2014
Essebsi won comfortably, but suspicions linger (AFP)

Nearly four years after its uprising, Tunisia has consolidated its nascent democracy and put an end to a transitional period that started on January 14th 2011, the day the country's autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed.

Tunisia’s first freely elected president is the 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi. Preliminary results had him on 55.68 percent of the vote, nearly ten percent more than his rival, the incumbent, Moncef Marzouki, who conceded late Monday.

     Politicians know that the Tunisian people are not scared anymore and it will be very hard to return to dictatorship.

- Sabah, Essebsi voter

Essebsi, and his anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes Party, can now consolidate power. The party won the majority of seats in the 26 October parliamentary vote, pushing the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party into second, and can now choose its coalition partners from a position of strength.

Long in the making

This democratic process in Tunisia was triggered four years ago when a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, doused himself in paint thinner and set himself ablaze to protest what he deemed an abuse of power from municipal police in the agricultural town of Sidi Bouzeid.

The act unleashed a series of demonstrations across the country. Protesters demanded freedom, social justice and dignity and unrest swept Tunisia from is north to south culminating in the ouster of Ben Ali after nearly a month.

That revolution came to put an end to decades of autocratic rule. Many people see the victory of Essebsi, however, as a prelude to the return of the former regime.

The octogenarian, who had been leading opinion polls for the past year, is a veteran politician who served under both Tunisia's former autocratic leaders Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both presidents ruled the country with an iron-fist and stifled freedoms and political dissent.

In spite of his association with the old regimes, Essebsi and Nidas Tounes – which brings together centrists, leftists, labor unionists but also figures affiliated with the former regime and is sometimes accused of being an attempt at resurrecting the former ruling RCD party that ruled Tunisia since independence – has easily prevailed.

Little improvement

To outside observers, this might seem strange. But the four-year transition has been fraught with difficulty. A depressed economic situation has been compounded by a deteriorating security situation. With neighbouring Libya in the throes of a civil war, people became increasingly wary that a similar situation might obtain in Tunisia.

Khalil Hedhili, 39, said that he voted for Nidaa Tounes in the legislative elections and Essebsi in the presidential poll.

“We had a revolution to improve our situation. We tried Marzouki and his gang for three years and they only made things worse. We saw how they mismanaged the country so we have to save ourselves and our country from failure and chaos,” Hedhili, a primary school teacher, said.

With both economic and security woes, there was a distinct sense among many Tunisians not only of frustration and disillusionment with the revolution and its aspirations but nostalgia for the past.

Essebsi has taken full advantage of this disenchantment. Nidaa Tounes presented itself as the only alternative to the failure of the Troika (as the ruling coalition that brought together Ennahdha, Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic (CPR) and another social democratic party called Ettakatol, was known). The party’s campaign revolved around anti-Islamism and attempts not only to revive the past but to glamorize it.

However, the victory hasn’t been easy. Marzouki retains a large base of supporters, particularly in the south. Given his history as a human rights activist and as an opponent of the Ben Ali regime, Marzouki presented himself as the guarantor of freedoms and as the “revolutionary candidate”.

Reversing revolutionary gains?

And the sentiment that the candidate of the revolution lost is likely to linger.

Hedia Ben Aicha, a 44-year-old movie director, said she opposed the return of the former regime and that is why she opted to endorse Marzouki.

“We had a revolution. We cannot just go back to pre-revolution figures,” she said. “The candidate I am here to support was not involved in the crimes committed by the former regime … We tried them for sixty years. We only saw oppression and fear.”

Nidaa Tounes has dismissed such concerns and said that it has no intention to go back to the practices of the past. Essebsi has been at pains to emphasize that his party is democratic and respects political pluralism. Mohsen Marzouk, Essebsi’s campaign manager, only Sunday told the nationwide TV channel Al Wataniya that his party would protect freedom of expression and freedom of press and respect human rights.

And Sabah, a 45-year-old housewife who refrained from giving her last name, dismissed concerns that Essebsi might try to stifle freedoms.

“I think politicians learned the lesson of the Tunisian revolution. They know that the Tunisian people are not scared anymore and it will be very hard to return to dictatorship,” she said.

She voted for Essebsi.

“I am convinced that Essebsi is the man that Tunisia needs now.”