Tunisians have shown once again, they are unique in the Arab world, a fact that they seem to be constantly having to defend. Get a room of Tunisians together and ask them to rank the number one way they would identify themselves; the choices being Arab, being Muslim, or being Tunisian. A gambler would be very wise to bet on the later! Tunisians have always been alone in their identity within the Arab world, an identity that has been continually reinforced since they achieved their independence from France in 1956. While they are a country that is over 99% Muslim, Arab being the first language and thus, part of the Arab world, their identity has to do more with what makes them different from the rest of the Arab world, than how they are “Arab”.
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When the Tunisian Revolution of January 2011 overthrew Tunisia’s longtime autocratic former president, Zine Abeddine Ben Ali, Tunisians did so as part of a leaderless revolution. There was no grand scheme mounted by an organized “fifth column”, nor was the revolution something any political pundit speaking honestly could have predicted. Rather, Tunisia’s revolution was a spontaneous response to economic challenges facing the country and the much too overt signs of corruption coming from the family of Ben Ali and the Trabelsi clan of his wife. The spark was finally lit when Mohammed Bouazizi, the frustrated produce vendor from the dusty, economically depressed town of Sidi Bou Zid in central Tunisia, burned himself alive…the scenario which has been reported many times previously.
While the media, many academic think tanks and others are always trying to relate the Tunisia experience to the remainder of the so-called “Arab Spring” countries, Tunisia was not trying to inspire a broader revolutionary movement within the region.The first post-revolution elections in October 2011 brought a plurality to Ennahda, a Tunisian branch of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood. They and their followers like to refer to themselves as the “moderate Islamic party”. Under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda built a formidable organizational structure that has ample financial backing to constantly hold conferences in the US, Tunisia and Europe delivering their message…the concept that Islam and Democracy will together, lead Tunisia’s future. This all sounded palatable and certainly earned a following from the western academics who were only to delighted to be continually invited to speak at the conferences and reciprocate by hosting Ennahda leaders.
During these two plus years of Ennahda’s plurality where they selected the plum ministries; the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ennahda’s collaboration extended to “The Troika”, a partnership that brought in two smaller, secular parties to round out the “Troika” coalition. The CPR (Congress for the Republic), headed by human rights activist, physician and politician, Moncef Marzouki, who was subsequently appointed “interim President” of Tunisia and the party Ettatakol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties), headed by Ettakatol’s Secretary General, placing Dr. Mustapha Ben Jafar, in the role of President of the Constituent Assembly. This collaboration as part of “The Troika” provided even greater credibility to this claim of being a moderate Islamic party that understands the need for political collaboration, while further consolidating their political strength, through The Troika. Despite the rather insignificant role of Ettakatol and CPR as political parties, CPR’s position of having the Presidency and Ettakatol’s of having the privilege of Mustapha Ben Jafar being President of the Constitutional Assembly, all contributed to garnering further political influence. While the mandate of the Constitutional Assembly was meant to be a one year mandate to complete the Constitution. delay in completing the Constitution seem to never focus on its mandate, often being sidetracked by amendments put forth by Ennahda members of the Assembly, amendments that would serve few Tunisians’ national interests, but would represent Ennahda’s interest. In addition to the important ministries held by Ennahda, Ettakatol meanwhile, placed woefully inadequate leadership in the positions of Minister of Finance and Minister of Tourism, two areas that were most important to help Tunisia’s economy get back on track. Ennahada also put allies with questionable credentials in key positions which they used to exact revenge on political nemeses, instead of improving the lots for the poor and unemployed. In addition to the above noted ministries, Ennadha held the Prime Minister’s office. During all this time, Tunisia and Tunisians, only saw problems worsen.
The continued delay of completing the Constitution led to political paralyses and distrust. An example of the type of amendments put forth by Ennahda supporters within the Assembly was a 2012 push to have as part of the Constitution the fact that women would be “complementary to men”. Through much of the Arab and Islamic world, this may have seen rather progressive. However, in Tunisia, where the 1956 Personal Status Code that became law under Tunisia’s new independence led by President Habib Bourguiba, the Personal Status Code stated that women and men were equal under the eyes of the law. This move by Ennahda to modify this was met with tremendous uproar leading to August 2012 demonstrations throughout the country, with women and men joined together, effectively killing this proposed amendment. However, as with other amendments, these took up considerable debate time and only underscored the delay in completing the Constitution, with an amendment that would have served few Tunisians’ interests other than Ennahda supporters.
The frustration within the Constituent Assembly by the opposition caused by the constant delays and failure to focus on finalizing the Constitution, finally lead to a political brick wall in August of 2013. The opposition parties to Ennahda called for a boycott of the Assembly. Through the helpful initiatives of the UGTT, the strong party of the labor unions, meetings were held that brought together Beji Caid Essebsi and Rachid Ghannouchi in Paris. This is akin to bringing together the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties of the United States Congress for a sit down in the hopes of accommodation. Fortunately, both Essebsi and Ghannouchi showed leadership qualities and pragmatism that has exceeded that of which is seen in Washington. Over a period of weeks, with tough compromises acknowledged by both sides, along with the continued prompting of the UGTT, an agreement was reached by which a provisional government would be appointed to begin in 2014, under the direction of a provisional prime minister approved by both major parties. The primary mandate of this provisional government was to complete the long delayed Constitution so that Tunisia could hold elections by the end of 2014, elections defined by the new Constitution for a five year period, defining the system and roles of being a parliamentary and/or presidential system. This agreement also required Ennahda to leave their leadership posts and allow the new, provisional prime minister to select his own cabinet.
A relatively unknown Tunisian engineer who had been living in France working in the corporate role was the agreed candidate to become the provisional Prime Minister. Mehdi Jomaa seem to have ties to neither party and understood clearly his mandate to achieve by the end of 2014. This past year under Jomaa has seen considerable improvement, leading to the completion at the end of January 2014 of an historic Constitution agreed to by all but eight members of Tunisia’s Constitutional Assembly. The recording of the vote on national television brought again the feeling of a country who put their Tunisian identity above all else…a moment when once again, Tunisians from all walks of life could feel proud to be Tunisian!
Throughout these years since the January 2011 Revolution and under Ennahda’s years of leadership, Tunisia and Tunisians continued to see their country regress in most every arena; foreign investment all but disappeared, security lapses that were somewhat constant were continually leading back to a lack of vigorous enforcement of security concerns by Ennahda. To anyone living in the neglected regions of Tunisia away from the coast that pinned their hopes in October 2011 on Ennahda’s promises of jobs and investment in improving economic opportunities, results were hard to find. Unemployment, joblessness and the lack of financial investment by Tunisian authorities, or a return of foreign investment, has yet to happen. The lack of the strong security that Tunisians were used to during the Ben Ali days freightened away tourists. Despite attempts by the Ministry of Tourism trying to play with statistics showing tourism rebounding, some 400,000 to 500,000 people linked to the tourism industry have not seen a tourism return that makes their financial security any more assured.
Despite a very organized electoral campaign by Ennahda for the October 2014 elections, the initial results indicate that Tunisians want their democracy, but they want economic improvement and security, two areas that Ennahda has yet to deliver in a convincing way.
While the final hard numbers of the election results may still be one or two days away, the general trend can be determined by the votes that have already been received, which count for a significant amount of the polling regions. Albeit some possible irregularities in some of the foreign voting locations in Europe, both Tunisian observers and international observers give high marks to the October 26th election in terms of transparency. Results thus far suggest Ennadha to have achieved in the area of 26% of the votes, in a nationwide turnout that suggests some nearly 60% of voter registration. The broader secular opposition umbrella party of Nida Tounes, led by a former prime minister and Bourguiba era politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, shows results of nearly 37%. Already a rather wide disparity. But the message of Tunisian’s voting pattern takes this message even further when one looks at some of the parties that follow in the voting after Nida Tounes and Ennahdha’s roughly 26%. The Free Patriotic Union garnered 7.83% , the Popular Front 5.52% and Afek Tounes 4.14%. Thus, an additional percentage of some 18% of proportional votes going to parties that are avowedly secular, like that of Nida Tounes, thus furthering the split between Nida Tounes and Ennahda.
In summary, while final statistics may result in slight changes of specifics, there was a clear message in a country that is over 99% Muslim…that democracy can work in a Muslim country. However, for Tunisians, who have always practiced their religion privately without oversight, this does not mean having democracy in a Muslim country must be guided by having an Islamic based party to tell them how to be Muslims or to define how democracy should be in a democratic Tunisia. Tunisians can revel in the fact that they have shown that they have the ability to continue their progress towards democratization, a process that has been less than four years, remaining relatively peaceful and one that now defines a direction that has always made Tunisia distinctive…the ability to defend their way of life!
The October 2014 elections may not bring immediate resolve to Tunisia’s many problems, but it points the direction that the overwhelming population wants…a country that is democratic, secure and economically strengthened, without a government that tells them this must be dictated by religion. The October 26th Elections highlights this achievement and helps define why Tunisia and Tunisians are a proud people who today…can hold their heads up high!
Jerry Sorkin has been involved in marketing and business development for decades, in Tunisia, as well as other MENA region countries, with an emphasis on cultural tourism, residing most of the year in Tunisia. He is Founder and President of TunisUSA and Iconic Journeys Worldwide.
He was among the authors of the 2012 World Bank study on restructuring Tunisia’s tourism economy and serves as the Tourism Consultant on a European Union project in Tunisia on Cultural Tourism. He also has been awarded “Top Specialist” for Tunisia by Conde Nast Traveler magazine for five years in a row and was the initiator and organizer behind-the- scenes of the magazine’s January 2014 article “Tunisia’s Time”.https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-nohG5K079xTXJRWmRRbXE2VHc/edit.
Jerry Sorkin is an Emeritus President of the Washington, DC based American Tunisian Association, though his opinions in this writing are those of his own.