Tunisia. Presidential Election in a Fog

There is tension in the air with the start of the presidential campaign. Seldom has an election seemed so open. In choosing their president, Tunisians will also be defining his institutional role.

2 septembre 2019, Tunis
Fethi Belaid/AFP

Anyone who can name the next president of Tunisia is clever indeed, or even name the two run-off finalists among the 26 first round candidates, a ballot scheduled for 25 September. Originally planned for 17 November, the election was moved up following the death of Beji Caid Essebsi on last 25 July. A few months earlier, in the midst of the vacuum created by the massive distrust of the political class, as revealed in the 2018 local elections, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed appeared to have the two-fold advantage of being untainted by the wheeler-dealer decay of Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party, and of holding in his hands all the levers of government. Even while sowing doubts about his candidacy—letting on he might prefer to keep his office on Kasbah Square and get one of his cronies elected president—, his youth and his experience in the corridors of power made him a potential favourite.

Eruption of the “populists”

However, with his rather sorry track record, the advantages of this “new broom” quickly lost their lustre and the emergence of new personalities capable of bridging the gulf between the State and the population has considerably complicated matters. Notable among these is Abir Moussi. She is a self-proclaimed heir to the old regime, surfing on the nostalgia for a “strong” State, but too divisive to be a real threat. More significant is Nabil Karoui, a communications and audiovisual tycoon, founder of Nessma TV in 2007 and who, since 2015, has been touring the country’s neglected regions with his charity Khalil Tounes and publicising its operations on his channel. Even though his generosity bears a greater resemblance to the clientelist handouts under the old regime than to an authentic welfare state, he has amassed a real political capital by responding to the need for proximity felt by a population directly affected by the gap between the two Tunisia.

Two weeks after he declared his candidacy on 28 May, a poll placed him at the head of the field. This was a signal that seemed dangerous enough for the government to take a desperate measure, adopting amendments to the electoral law aimed at disqualifying him. But the new law was not promulgated in time by Essebsi and could not be applied. Nabil Karoui’s arrest on 23 August pursuant to a detention warrant issued in connection with his prosecution for tax fraud has every appearance of a political manipulation of justice. The haste with which the warrant was executed—it had been issued that very morning by the indictments division—may be read as an attempt to prevent Nabil Karoui from being protected by presidential immunity were he to be elected or, more trivially, to simply eliminate a rival. The fact remains, however, that even in gaol, he is still a candidate, and now enjoys the status of victim of what his supporters are calling “fascist methods.”

The missing figure of «Father of the Nation»

With the death of Beji Caid Assebsi, a new gap has appeared on the political landscape, a space once occupied by the “Father of the Nation,” the guardian of national stability. Widely despised until the very end, that veteran disciple of Habib Bourguiba was nonetheless the last member of the generation that founded independent Tunisia (with Mohamed Ennaceur, President of the Assembly, acting as President) to be connected with the affairs of State. His death has spotlighted the glaring absence of a reassuring father figure as opposed to the array of novices, demagogues and power lovers.

The president’s entourage realised this and put forward Abdelkrim Zbidi, Minister of Defence, to play this role. He was seen next to Beji Caid Essebsi during his last public appearance on 22 July and boasted of having organised the funeral. A Facebook campaign was immediately launched urging him to stand for President, and he agreed “soldier-like” to be a candidate in these troubled times. An independent candidate, but with the support among others of Hafedh Caid Essebsi, still chairman of Nidaa Tounes: this was a stroke of luck for the deceased president’s son, thought to have been sidelined after his party fell apart. If Abdelkrim Zbidi were to be elected, the Caid Essebsi clan would reach the goal Hafedh has been struggling to achieve for the last five years: remain in the circle of power after his father’s death.

Abdelkrim Zbidi is 70, was born in Mahdia and also has the not insignificant backing of the Sahelian elites who have seen themselves as builders of the State since 1956 and who see in him the means to restore the role they have lost since the revolution. However, even benefiting as he does from the prestige enjoyed by the army in the public eye, the least one can say is that he lacks the eloquence of that former attorney, Beji. This is a serious handicap for a campaign and a function in which the power of words is as important as the constitutional prerogatives.

Failed hegemonies

Communication is not candidate Zbidi’s only problem. Besides Youssef Chahed, there are at least half a dozen others out to capture the legacy of the “destourien family” (descended from the nationalist movement) and the remains of Nidaa Tounes. None of them has any real political proposal to make nor any presidential personality to offer, they seem mostly to be disputing the honour of implementing the economic program demanded by international fund providers. And together they may simply be compromising their party’s chances to compete in the run-off.

The inversion of the electoral calendar—the parliamentary elections will still be held on 6 October, in other words, after the President is elected—has forced Ennahda to violate its golden rule i.e. not to be isolated in a position of power, a situation which would pit all its adversaries against it. But the Islamist party could not afford to remain silent during this campaign which comes such a short time before the legislative elections. It has nominated a presidential candidate and, in defiance of its chairman’s opinion, a candidate from its own ranks, Abdelfattah Mourou. A Tunis-based attorney, currently interim president of the National Assembly, he is as atypical as he is popular within his party. An eloquent and even crafty orator, he is capable of attracting voters outside of his party’s usual constituency. But, on the one hand, he is going to have to share the Islamist vote with the former general secretary of Ennahda and Prime Minister from the end of 2011 to 2013, Hamai Jebal, who broke with the party in 2014. And on the other, the Ennahda electorate could well be more inclined to vote for candidates who better embody a break with the old regime, like Moncef Marzuki, who was President of the Republic at the time of the Constituent Assembly. Or Kayes Sayed, a professor of constitutional law and a newcomer to politics, with a reputation for moral integrity, fidelity to the ideals of the revolution, and who recently laid claim to conservative opinions on social issues.

Besides the difficulty of gathering their respective political families around a “natural” candidate, Destouriens and Islamists have a similar problem when it comes to converting their political legacy into a genuine project for lack of any grounding in societal forces.

They are two potentially competitive hegemonies, the one established but disunited, the other still in search of acceptability, but both in need of updating.

Divided and isolated left

In this context, could a personality embodying something new make a difference? The Popular Front, formed by the two feuding enemies of the far left, the Marxist left and the Arab nationalists, has come apart and is fielding two candidates: Hamma Hammami, historic opponent of the dictatorship and head of the Workers’ Party (formerly the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers, PCOT), which has not been able to put together a popular force of transformation; and Mongi Rahoui, on the cutting edge as regards identity questions, less so on social issues.

Most of the social democrats are united behind the candidacy of Abid Briki, an Arab nationalist and prominent member of the union bureaucracy in the days of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The Ettakatol movement, once an underground opposition party, today practically disappeared from the media radars, is running Elyes Fakhgakh, Minister of Finance between 2012 and 2014, whose campaign is attracting the progressives.Mohamed Abbou represents the Democratic Current and on the strength of its relative success in the 2018 local elections, he is campaigning against corruption and the pursuance of practices of the old regime, but his economic convictions are essentially neoliberal.

Paradoxical presidency

The political commitment and fierceness of the battle for this presidential election may seem paradoxical since in theory this is a parliamentary regime, conceived precisely to prevent the return of personal rule. The parliamentary election ought to be the most important one and the most coveted office that of Prime Minister. But the weight of universal suffrage, the continued importance in the popular imagination of personal power, the hybridity of a Constitution which still gives the President opportunities to wield considerable political clout, the imprint left by Beji Caid Essebsi who did his best to maximise his constitutional prerogatives and finally the fact that the first round of the presidential election will be held before the legislative one all add to the pre-eminence of the presidential function.

Aside from the ambivalent phrasing of the Constitution, the presidential institution has always, even at the time of the Husseinite monarchy (1750–1855), had a key role in managing the equilibrium between the political and economic clans, for the benefit of the protégés of the power structure (which is certainly not a Tunisian specificity).

A wide-open election

This is what is most explicitly at stake in this election (the inclusion or exclusion of Ennahda in the power structure, an obsessive issue in 2014, is now secondary). The matter of the President’s role under the current regime will be one of the key political questions over the next few weeks and probably for a long time to come. Should he be a political leader, in charge of implementing a party program? Or an authority above the parties, allowing Parliament and the government to fully exercise their constitutional prerogatives? Will the Tunisian people put up with his remaining the representative of a coalition of interests controlling the distribution of national resources, or will the objective nature of the institutions and the demands of society transform this traditional role?

Most of the candidates make no bones about their determination to be strong leaders, echoing the autocratic hankerings of the moment, after years of dissemination of state power, parliamentary shenanigans and the mistreatment of national sovereignty by an influx of foreign players. But the elected representative will in any case be dependent on the balances resulting from the legislative elections. To rule with or without Ennahda will then again become an issue of prime importance.

Tunisian democracy has many imperfections (lack of independence of the judiciary system, interpenetration of politics and economics, autocratic temptations, plethora of competing parties, absence of social issues. . .) and this presidential election is indeed fraught with tension. Tunisia is experiencing a tense presidential election, but free and open, as few countries really know.