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Tunisia Turns to Secularism

Tunisia’s second parliamentary election after the Arab Spring uprising was held on October 26th. The resulting shift of power from the Islamist Ennahda party to the secular, business-oriented Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) party reflects both changes in Tunisian mentality and Ennahda’s deep unpopularity. The election was hailed by the West as a significant step toward democracy: there was little violence at the polls, when over 60% of Tunisia’s 5.2 million voters cast their ballots, and UN officials who monitored the process deemed the election to be fair. Nidaa Tounes won 85 of the 217 seats in Tunisia’s parliament, surging ahead of Ennahda, which won 69 seats. Nidaa Tounes will now form a coalition with minor parties, thus sidelining Ennahda. Although the election of a secular party in Tunisia is welcomed by the West, the presence of members of the now-defunct Democratic Constitutional Rally, the party of the deposed president Ben Ali, in Nidaa Tounes calls into question the future of human rights under the new government.

Ennahda faced an uphill struggle to retain public support after it won the 2011 parliamentary elections. The poor state of Tunisia’s economy and job market, high living costs, and general destruction occasioned by the Arab Spring meant that Ennahda’s term in office was always destined to be a failure in the eyes of Tunisians. Despite facing these insurmountable difficulties, Ennahda managed to enact a new constitution in January 2014, after several rifts within the Tunisian Constituents Assembly. In the process, Ennahda gave up many of its key policies: it agreed to keep Sha’ria law separate from the state, establish gender equality in the workplace and at the polls, and a constitutional power-sharing structure between parliament and the president. But the passing of the new constitution was not enough to save Ennahda. The events that followed the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led Tunisians to believe a similar Islamist grab for power would occur under Ennahda. Combined with soaring food prices and attacks by Islamist extremists, voters ousted Ennahda and chose Nidaa Tounes.

But Nidaa Tounes is not the ideal secular party the West and Tunisia want. It emulates Habib Bourgaiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president, by focusing on modernization and revamping education in Tunisia. Nidaa Tounes has strong support from within the business community, and among family-run business groups and trade union workers. The party’s success lies in the feeling of security it can provide to Tunisians. After three turbulent years, many Tunisians desire normalcy over constant change and upheaval. Nidaa Tounes’s leader Beji Caid Sebsi provides that security. Sebsi headed the interim government before the Ennahda handover after the revolution, and is very popular among older Tunisians, who crave the stability of the past. In contrast, Tunisian youth aren’t ready to turn back the clock. Only 20% of Tunisian voters between 18 and 25 voted in the election, silently protesting against corruption. The accusations particularly target Nidaa Tounes, which has embraced members of Ben Ali’s party (the Constitutional Democratic Rally). Although the CDR party was dissolved, its clientelistic policies have created a strong network of loyal followers, ranging from wealthy businessmen to taxi drivers. These networks may have been out in full force on October 26th, propelling Nidaa Tounes to victory.

The Tunisian youth’s protest at the polls could be a warning of what is to come. Young Tunisians reject Nidaa Tounes because it, in part, represents Ben Ali’s regime and the policies of the CDR. If a party is determined as “good” or “bad” by the West solely because of its secular principles, faults such as corruption and human rights abuses will be overlooked. Longing for stability, Tunisians may have voted in a sleeker, smarter version of the ancien regime. Presidential elections on November 23rd will determine the power of Nidaa Tounes in forming a new Tunisia.

Image license: Some rights reserved by Nasser Nouri

About Ellen Heinke

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