Uniting for Tunisia?

Recent polls place Nidaa Tounes—a self-proclaimed “modernist” party founded in the summer of 2012—nearly neck and neck with Ennahda, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party.

Recent polls place Nidaa Tounes—a self-proclaimed “modernist” party founded in the summer of 2012—nearly neck and neck with Ennahda, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party. Yet, many Tunisians— particularly those living in smaller towns outside the capital—argue that top figures in their local Nidaa Tounes offices were well-known RCD members before the revolution. Like Egyptians, who fear a return of the felool, or old regime forces, Tunisians talk openly about the threat of tejemaa—former members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (French acronym, RCD) staging a counterrevolution. For its part, Nidaa Tounes has diligently attempted to dismiss such charges, pointing out that Ennahda itself has allowed many RCD-era bureaucrats to stay in its administration. Whether or not Nidaa Tounes will be able to seriously challenge Ennahda in Tunisia’s next elections depends largely on its ability to address these suspicions and appeal more dynamically to the country’s center-left—a key, unclaimed voter demographic.

Defending Nidaa Tounes became more difficult after March 9, when Faouzi Elloumi, a wealthy businessman and member of the party’s executive committee, made some unwise statements on the popular talk show Essaraha Raha; “The tejemaa and the Destourians are the same thing—there’s no difference,” said Elloumi. For many viewers, this was explicitly admitting that Nidaa Tounes, which locates its identity in the Bourguiba-era “Destourians” (so-named after the former president’s Neo-Destourian—later Socialist Destourian—Party), is equally accepting of Ben Ali’s RCD forces. Though leading members of Nidaa Tounes publicly reprimanded Elloumi, YouTube and radio clips of his statement had already gone viral throughout the country.

When asked directly about Elloumi’s statements, top figures at Nidaa Tounes’s headquarters responded defensively. “Look—you cannot create a party from scratch,” said Mohsen Marzouk—widely recognized as one of Nidaa Tounes’s most powerful leaders. “Ennahda was here for forty years [sic]. We’ve been here for seven months…There were two million people in the RCD. It’s been dismantled, so these people are now in the nature.  It’s only natural that a lot of people who were in the RCD will join our party.” Mahmoud Ben Rhomdane, one of the party’s chief economic advisors, responded with realism: “To start a party, you need two things: guys and money,” he said. “Nidaa Tounes isn’t the cleanest train. But it’s the last train. If you want to reach the terminus of democracy, you’ve got to get on board…otherwise it’ll be Ennahda in power for the next two generations.”

Though few supporters of Nidaa Tounes are as forthright as Ben Rhomdane, many echo his underlying sentiment; defeating Ennahda is a goal that justifies major sacrifices. Some of Tunisia’s leading progressive parties have agreed. To that end, Hizb al-Joumhouri (itself a merger of the Progressive Democratic Party, or PDP, and Afek Tounes, two liberal parties that competed in the 2011 elections) joined Nidaa Tounes in a loose union in mid-January 2013. Called “Union for Tunisia” (Ittihad min ajal Tunis), it is comprised of five parties, the best known of which are Nidaa Tounes, al-Joumhouri, and al-Massar (formerly al-Tajdeed, a leftist party that also competed in the 2011 elections).  In coming months, these parties will attempt to transform the Union from a rudimentary oppositional front to a sturdy electoral and political platform with shared candidate lists and talking points.

Joining the Union appeared a shrewd political calculus for Hizb al-Joumhouri in particular, which is currently polling around five percent. “We’re a party that tries to unify democratic forces to defeat Ennahda so we can eventually reach democracy,” said Maya Jribi, the party’s secretary general. “So it’s natural that we’ll reach out to form a union with them.” For other members of al-Joumhouri, however, the union with Nidaa Tounes proved more troubling. “Nidaa Tounes represents less of an evil for me right now than Ennahda,” said Lotfi Saibi, a member of al-Joumhouri’s executive committee. “But the union happened before justice had taken its course—before we’d had a proper vetting of people inside Nidaa Tounes. There were people inside al-Joumhouri who said let’s vet people first, let’s clean house, so that we’re not open to these kinds of attacks.”

Whether Nidaa Tounes and Hizb al-Joumhouri—the Union’s most influential parties—will be able to agree on candidate lists and harmonize their platforms between now and elections remains to be seen. Members of both parties wonder in particular if they will be able to settle on a single presidential candidate, given Nidaa Tounes’s resistance to al-Joumhouri’s presidential hopeful, Nejib Chebbi. Though many Tunisians expect Nidaa Tounes will nominate Beji Caid Essebsi, its 86 year-old president, Essebsi’s age makes him ineligible for the post under the country’s soon-to-be finalized draft constitution, which caps the age of candidates at 75. Leading figures in Nidaa Tounes finger the party’s secretary-general, Tayyib Bakkouche as their likely nominee—not Essebsi. But the fact that Nidaa Tounes is so strongly identified with Essebsi’s personality will make it difficult for Bakkouche (or whomever the Union nominates) to stage a successful candidacy.

While joining Union for Tunisia seemed like wise political gamesmanship, al-Joumhouri may have sacrificed an important opportunity to claim the center-left territory vacated by the Congress for the Republic (French acronym, CPR) and Ettakatol, Ennahda’s two coalition partners. The CPR and Ettakatol won the second- and third-most seats in the 2011 elections, but have since hemorrhaged support. Many of their representatives within the Constituent Assembly have defected to other parties, leaving those who voted for the CPR and Ettakatol during the first elections wondering where to throw their support.

In answering where these voters may go, it is important to remember why the CPR and Ettakatol did so well in 2011. Both appealed to the center-left as mildly secular parties that opposed Islamism but accepted Ennahda’s presence on the Tunisian political stage. Most importantly, in an era of revolution and rebuilding, these two groups were perceived as “new era” parties that would stand strongly against the RCD. Conversely, some Tunisians—including many who voted for the CPR or Ettakatol—now suspect Nidaa Tounes’s leftist leadership of sacrificing revolutionary principles to accept party donations from RCD-linked businessmen. Unlike the CPR and Ettakatol (which were seen as mildly secular but entirely Tunisian) Tunisians frequently associate Nidaa Tounes with a French model of more aggressive secularism. Compounding this perception, the party’s guiding figures frequently dismiss Ennahda members as incompetent “foreigners” who have attempted to transplant outside political trends (like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism) into Tunisia. “They exist outside of Tunisian history,” said party leader Mohsen Marzouk, echoing a common refrain. “They [Ennahda MPs] don’t even have the capacity to read and write.”

Hizb al-Joumhouri tends to take a less dismissive approach towards Ennahda, emphasizing that political Islam has become part of the Tunisian landscape and is not necessarily a threat. Though al-Joumhouri’s discourse is likely perceived as more realistic and less elitist, it is, by far, Union for Tunisia’s junior partner. Unless Nidaa Tounes can avoid demonizing Ennahda on ideological grounds, it will likely prove unable to tap into that broad center-left space formerly occupied by the CPR and Ettakatol. For those centrist and center-left voters, Ennahda’s perceived incompetence on bread-and-butter economic issues—not Islamism—constitutes the paramount threat.

Right now, Ennahda is the only Tunisian party that commands a stable support base. Nidaa Tounes has patched together a motley crew of leftists, liberal progressives, Destourians, and former RCD partisans who oppose Ennahda’s rule. Even groups with nominally conflicting agendas— such as many members of the country’s principal labor union, UGTT, and the national employers’ union, UTICA—tend to support Nidaa Tounes. For the party to succeed in the next elections, it must meaningfully address perceptions of RCD linkage, build support based on more than just Beji Caid Essebsi’s personality, and articulate a strong socio-economic vision that goes beyond defeating Ennahda. The success of Tunisia’s transition depends, in part, on whether Nidaa Tounes can meet these challenges in the coming months. If not, Ennahda may grow increasingly authoritarian in coming decades—less because of Islamism and more because of the creeping over-confidence that comes with winning successive elections.

Monica Marks is a Tunisia-based Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Omar Belhaj Salah is a Tunisian civil society activist and postgraduate student at Manouba University.

This article is reprinted with permission from Sada.  It can be accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2013/03/28/uniting-for-tunisia/fu2q