Five Lessons from Tunisia. B. Mikail

Barah Mikaïl, Associate Professor of International Security, Saint Louis University

Tunisians have just voted for their presidential and parliamentary elections. They did so in circumstances that were unprecedented. On July 25th, 2019, the president of the country, Beji Caed Essabsi, also known as BCE, died, and presidential elections had to be organized a bit earlier than scheduled, creating a new context. It is certainly hard to predict what would have happened if BCE had still been alive when new presidential elections were organized; nevertheless, the death of this strong and respected figure created a singular electoral context.

A fragmented parliament

After weeks of speculation about who would win these elections, public opinion finally had an answer. On the parliamentarian level, the second round of Tunisia’s elections have given birth to the following, though with a low turnout (41% of participation for legislative elections according to the Tunisian electoral commission). Out of 257 parliamentary seats:

  • Ennahda Movement, a self-defined Muslim Democrat party, won 52 seats, dropping 17 seats from outgoing parliament;
  • The Heart of Tunisia (Qalb Tunes), a new party headed by Nabil Karoui, a rich controversial businessman who has gained popularity by distributing aid to the poor, won 38 seats;
  • The Democratic Current, a Panarab Social-Democratic Party, jumped from 3 seats to 22 seats;
  • The Dignity Coalition (Al-Karama), an Islamist Conservative party that was born out of disagreements with what it saw as Ennahda’s soft line, entered the parliament with 21 seats;
  • The Free Destourian Party, a party that claims that things were better when the previous president Ben Ali was in power before 2011, got 17 seats;
  • The People’s Movement, an Arab Nationalist secular party, jumped from 3 seats to 16 seats;
  • Long Live Tunisia (Tahya Tunis), the party of the outgoing Prime Minister, crumbled from 83 seats to only 3.

Besides, thirteen other parties plus independents garnered a total of 37 seats.

The problem for Tunisia is that parliamentary majority requires a minimum of 109 deputies. Obviously, none of the Tunisian parties can exert power without entering into alliances; but what is it exactly that could bring together political parties that experience so many political divergences? Compromise in itself is not enough. The main parliamentarian parties would also have to make serious concessions on bits of their programs before they consider engaging into alliances. The constitution of a government of national unity may take time, provided that parties reach an agreement. And so far, nothing is clear as to where we would be heading, and whether parties would be capable of putting the interest of the country before their own. Tunisian politicians are known for being open to compromise, but the current situation is in need of large concessions and a lot of flexibility. This matter is particularly important in a country where the center of power lies within the parliament. Without a parliamentary majority, no government can emerge; without the backing of the parliament, the country is paralyzed.

October “surprise”

This does not mean that the Tunisian presidential function is useless. On the contrary, with a country pending on the moment when a new government would be constituted, the figure of the president gains even more importance. When the government happens to experiment deep disagreements, the role of the president will be equally important. This is what makes newly elected Kais Saied central in the current political landscape in Tunisian.
The second round of Tunisian elections had opposed retired university professor Kais Saied to businessman and media tycoon Nabil Karoui. They are opposed in almost everything. While Kais Saied is structured, Nabil Karoui surfs on vague ideas without defining a clear program. Saied is very calm, while Karoui has a more agitated temper. Karoui sees a model in former Brazilian president Lula da Silva, and he is proud of his friendship with Silvio Berlusconi, while we know very little about Saied’s inspirations. Karoui is suspected of corruption, while Saied has an image of integrity.

At the end of the day, both candidates to presidential elections only share one common objective: their alleged will to replace the ongoing system with another one. Said favors decentralization and wants to give more power to local authorities, while Karoui wants to get the country managed by economists. At the same time, this same impression that both candidates give of being “anti-system” is nothing exceptional; all Tunisian political parties happen to share this ambition, officially speaking.
It is still true that with the election of Kais Saied, Tunisians seem to have favored integrity and the promise this candidate made to empower people above any other considerations. But, interestingly, this same result is not equally reflected in the composition of the parliament. And this can only insist on how much Tunisia’s political scene is fragmented, knowing that Tunisians had more interest in the presidential elections than in the legislative ones (55% of turnout).

This political landscape makes it hard to say what may occur specifically in the coming months and years. Indeed, Tunisia’s scene was polarized before, but it is now considerably fragmented. In general terms, it is the parliament that rules in Tunisia rather than the executive. But both need each other, leaving observers struggling to try and foresee what type of alliances could prevail in the near future.

Five lessons from Tunisian elections

Nevertheless, there are some lessons and expectations that can be stressed from what happened during the last weeks. Here are five of them:

Tunisians are past the seculars-Islamists opposition

Since the fall of former president Zineddine Ben Ali in 2011, analyses related to Tunisia put the accent on the sociopolitical division that opposes Islamists and seculars. This line of divide is still present, but it is not enough anymore to explain divergences. The various orientations and ideological horizons of Tunisia’s main political parties have been extended to other schemes, such as the opposition of the pro and the anti-system, the leaning towards more liberal or more social policies, the attachment to national, regional or local perspectives… all of this is welcome from a democratic point of view, but it also adds to Tunisia’s political complexity.

Tunisians made choices that we may not like but that they deemed legitimate, even though in a way that contradicted “Western expectations”. Indeed, from a general European perspective, the general feeling is that things would have been better off if Tunisians had voted for democratic parties and candidates that are clear about principles such as democracy, political representativeness, economic liberalism, respect for human and citizens’ rights, etc. The reality is that none of the winning parties or candidates has put the accent on these, save for what relates to the necessity for Tunisians to benefit from better socioeconomic conditions. But maybe this is simply because it is this aspect that really matters.

The failure Tunisian governments have had to address the socioeconomic situation has serious consequences: it is key to understanding why Tunisians favored candidates that extend from social and religious conservatism to the nostalgia of the former regime. The underdevelopment of the infrastructures kept the same since 2011, with the coasts benefitting from better development in order to better address the tourists and their needs, while the countryside kept underdeveloped. Besides, inflation, poor employment perspectives, and the persistence of a culture of mismanagement and/or corruption within institutions also stood up to now as a serious obstacle to Tunisia’s long-awaited opportunities for flourishment.

Tunisia has not come to terms with its security problems. Indeed, while domestic terrorism originating from Islamist and/or jihadi groups remains threatening, the country also has to deal with other problems, such as the challenges that are coming from neighboring Libya, smuggling networks, movements of population that include returning fighters from Syria… Besides, social violence is also a reality, with crimes and acts of delinquency reflecting how deep socio-economic problems are. This situation taken as a whole is of great concern for the stability of Tunisia and of the subregion.

Tunisia needs a roadmap that its politicians are incapable of agreeing on, and this is why moving forward will be everything but easy. Their lack of determination when it comes to favoring national interest over their own one, the lack of vision and/or of imagination when it comes to thinking ahead, the remains of a culture of mismanagement that has been inherited from the former regime and the difficulty many politicians have to take distance with it… all of these, put in perspective with the gigantic challenges and obstacles that are still standing in the way, can only make any kind of optimism very cautious.

It is not that Tunisia would have failed; the path it is following remains way more positive than any of those that we find in the other countries of the MENA region. But it is also important to understand that while Tunisians need to move forward at their own rhythm, the fact is that their deep socioeconomic problems and the deception they feel towards their political elites explain why those of them that voted were willing to explore, in many cases, radical alternatives. The result is the fragmentation of the political scene, and a total blur regarding what may happen in the next days, weeks and months. Tunisia, the country of origin for the “Arab Spring”, deserves way more and way better.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Barah Mikail (2019). “Five Lessons from Tunisia”, Observatory on contemporary crises, October 22, 2019, URL: