Political party update 3: Nidaa Tunis welcomes Islamists, is denounced by CPR and Ennahda

Moderate Islamists would be welcomed in Beji Caid Essebsi’s party, according to a statement released by the state news agency. “Mohsen Marzouk (of Nidaa) says that discussions are underway between Nidaa Tunis and some moderate Tunisian Islamists. Marzouk said he did not see objection any to reconciliation (between the two fronts), especially as the new political party “is not based on ideological grounds and that” it is open to all national interests.” It is unclear whether any Islamists have joined the new party.

Meanwhile, two former CPR members in the Constituent Assembly officially announced their adhesion to Nidaa.

El Watan, an Algerian daily, sees progress in the secular camp. “A year and a half after the fall of the Ben Ali regime and eight months before the next elections, Tunisia is heading towards a reconfiguration of the unique political landscape that permeate everyday life. In politics, the Tunisian left is recovering after losing the elections of the Constituent Assembly on 23 October 2011. Aware of the stinging defeat suffered at the polls, the different formations that comprise the broad spectrum of the left seem to draw the right lessons and structure their ranks for the upcoming political battles.”

CPR secretary general Mohammed Abbou said in an interview on Tunisian radio that putting Nidaa Tunis in power would be a return to tyranny in Tunisia

Meanwhile, Rached Ghannouchi does not see the party as a true adversary of Ennahda because of the absence of a clear ideology. He went on to condemn the dictatorial practices of Tunisia’s first leader, Habib Bourguiba, still considered a hero to many.

The CPR’s spokesman, Hedi Ben Abbes, also questioned Nidaa’s ability to gain votes, saying that it has neither the strength nor the program to attract Tunisian voters.

Ennahda also blamed Nidaa for the violence in Sidi Bouzid. Leaders reports that “Ennahda sees the hand of “some familiar faces in the region in coordination with Nida Tounès as the arm of RCD, saboteurs, thieves, drug dealers and contraband alcoholic beverage sellers. The response of Beji Caid Essebsi party was swift: “These attacks against our party are free of charge (…) The brigands are closerto Nahdhaouis  than we are. We do not have militias, we do not insult anyone and we have no violence. It is inappropriate to describe this way the democrats, activists and human rights components of civil society who took to the streets to protest against repression and to defend their rights.”

Political party updates 1 and 2.

Political Party update 1: Marzouki shows independence, the CPR chooses its new leadership

I’m back from a little vacation and will be providing a series of updates to Kefteji over the course of the week. We start today with a continuation of my series on Tunisian political parties. Despite August holidays, Ramadan, and Aid el-Fitr, political wrangling continued in Tunisia in the month of August.

Today’s updates focus on the parties most in the news, the CPR, which held its congress this month, Ennahdha, and Nidaa Tunis. It’s interesting to note the discourse between these three elements as they position themselves ahead of the coming constitutional battles and next year’s elections. Smaller parties made few headlines, although rumors swirled over potential coalitions that have not yet seen the light of day. Given my lag in posting, I’ve separated out the main headlines into three parts. Click here for installments 2 and 3.

The CPR held its party congress this week. Highlights:

Marzouki angered his coalition partner, Ennahdha, with the following remarks, as reported in Jeune Afrique on Aug 25. “What complicates the situation is the growing sense that our brothers in Ennahda are working to control the administrative and political state,” the president wrote in the statement read by one of his advisers at the opening of Congress. “These are practices that remind us of the bygone era” of the deposed president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he said, denouncing “the appointments of Ennahda supporters in key positions whether they are competent or not.” In protest, several members of the government belonging to the Islamist party left the room, including the Minister of Human Rights, Samir Dilou, and the Interior, Ali Larayedh, according to an AFP journalist.

Some members of the CPR distanced themselves from Marzouki, while Ennahda criticized the president. “The discourse of Moncef Marzouki to the opening of the Congress of CPR is catastrophic,” said Taher Hmila on the sidelines of the congress from which he was excluded. He added that it was a contradictory discourse, sometimes calling the cohesion between the members of Troika and sometimes criticizing the coalition. Samir Dilou, Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice (and sometimes Ennahda spokesman, withdrew from the Congress, saying that there was an unjustified attack against the party Ennahdha.

Leaders argues that Marzouki’s strategy is a way to assure his reelection, distancing himself from Ennahda.

The highlight of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) congress held over the weekend has been the virulent attack by Moncef Marzouki against his Ennhadha allies he has accused of seeking to monopolize power…marking the tone for a political season that looks to be very eventful.

Marzouki had already launched his reelection campaign, in the spring, with a priority of trying to find the best way to keep the direct elections of the presidency, without having to seek the support of Ennahdha. The polls certainly give show his popularity, generated by its strong media presence…, and his frequent trips abroad… Without confusing notoriety, popularity, populism and, ultimately, the final vote, analysts know that the nature of the political system has not yet been set (presidential, parliamentary, mixed…) and the time that separates us from elections is likely to be extended until next summer, meaning that all calculations may lead to false speculation.

TAP, the Tunisian news agency, reports that “the CPR has announced its official position that it continues to support the maintenance of a presidential regime, although it noted that it will respect the position of its coalition partners.

The congress also named the new party secretary, giving insight into CPR’s internal politics. Liberation reports: “Maintaining Mohamed Abbou, 46 years as Secretary General of CPR seems to confirm this line (of criticism of Ennahda), the latter having resigned in late June the post of Minister of Administrative Reform, saying the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali not let him exercise his prerogatives in the fight against corruption.”

Leaders has the full list of party leaders.

Meanwhile, Abderraouf Ayadi, former Secretary General of CPR said he is creating a new independent movement of the CPR to further strengthen the mechanisms of democracy.

See also political update 2 and 3.

The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

Tunisia’s secular political parties have had a rough go of it. Thought to have been in a prime position to govern after Tunisia’s uprising, support quickly collapsed and splintered into various factions. Although the 9 major secular parties managed to garner about 30 percent of the popular vote in last October’s elections, only the two highest vote getters, the CPR with 8.7% of the vote and Ettaktol with 7%, decided to join the ruling coalition with Islamist party Ennahdha, which garnered 37% of the popular vote.

Despite a long period of self-reflection following their electoral defeat in October, the collapse of secular parties appears to continue unabated – this despite efforts to unify their efforts ahead of next year’s scheduled elections. Day after day newspapers report about the infighting, policy disagreements, lack of leadership, and lack of popular support. With less than a year to go until the elections (probably), let’s have a look at the parties and where they stand.

Congress for the Republic: The CPR came from out of nowhere in October to earn the second most seats in the Constituent Assembly. They ran on a populist agenda that stressed its willingness to work with whoever won – including the Islamists – and the charm of Moncef Marzouki. The party quickly ran into trouble, though, after Marzouki was named president of the republic in a deal that shared government positions between Ettaktol and Ennahdha. Marzouki was seen by some as abandoning his party in his pursuit for power. Without Marzouki holding things together, the party slowly broke down and finally split when its secretary general left the party at the beginning of May, taking with him a third of the parties delegates in the Assembly. They have subsequently former a new party, the Independent Democratic Congress. While Marzouki remains a popular figure according to (notoriously unreliable) polling data, the party itself may not be able to hold together, at issue is the extent to which the party should cooperate with Ennahdha.

Ettaktol: Like the CPR, Ettaktol ran its campaign on the grounds of working with Ennahdha. This earned it a place in the ruling coalition with the CPR and Ennahdha, and its secretary general the position of president of the Constituent Assembly. Seen at the time as a defeat, with Ennahdha leading the government and the CPR the presidency, Mustapha Ben Jafaar has maneuvered behind the scenes. Ettaktol suffered its first major blow in February, when thousands of its members resigned, including several assembly members. They were reportedly angry at Ben Jafaar’s non-democratic decision making and its cooperation with Ennahdha. Nevertheless, reports on the ground have shown that the party retains a structure that could lend itself to revival around election time. Nonetheless, Ben Jafaar’s low profile has not positioned the party as a leader – and polling data shows him far below his fellow troika partners Marzouki and prime minister Jebali, of the Ennahdha movement.

Progressive Democratic Party: The PDP is the biggest disaster among Tunisia’s secular parties. In January 2011, newspapers wondered whether party leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi could be the next president of Tunisia – but the party’s extraordinarily poor performance in the elections (less than 4 percent of the vote) caused the party to rethink its approach. In subsequent months, the PDP has tried to regain its footing, but it does not seem to have found a formula that resonates. In March, Chebbi appeared at a major rally in Monastir with former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and dozens of former officials of the previous dictatorships. He was savaged by the left for appearing to stand with authoritarian remnants of the rejected regime. In April, the party attempted to unify various factions of the left through a fusion with two other parties, the coalition fell apart less than three weeks later. As of today, the party appears as fractured as ever and there is virtually no structure outside of Tunisia’s major cities.

Bourguibist Parties: Bourguibist parties, as I’ve written about previously, have attempted to regain strength through both opposition to the laxist Islamist government and a platform that eschews liberal values but harkens back to the proud days of post-colonial Tunisia when President Bourguiba led the country into modernity. As I wrote at the time: “To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.” Despite my optimism for the movement, the reality is that the Destourians are led by an 86 year old man. Despite his popularity, he remains a figure of the past, not of the future of this young country.

Other parties: Various other secular parties continue to struggle gaining supporters. Pro-business party Afek abandoned its platform entirely as it merged with social democratic PDP. The PDM, most recently implicated in a voting scandal at the Constituent Assembly, remains a party of Tunisia’s rich suburbs, with virtually no reach beyond the French-speaking elite. The POCT, the Tunisian Communist Party, has been an exception to the general fragmentation and loss of support among Tunisians. Its leader, Hamma Hammami, who long suffered under the regime of Ben Ali, remains a key figure in Tunisia’s labor movement and the party seems to remain above the criticism of many secular parties as elitist or opportunistic. The class struggle truly continues in the POCT. Nevertheless, perceptions of communist parties in Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world (and America, might I add), remain marred by the association with atheism.

Obviously, the secular parties in Tunisia are fragmented and dispersed. So what -what does it matter? There are two major reasons this matters.

Firstly, the constitution has not yet set up the electoral system, we do not yet know if Tunisia will have a parliamentary or presidential system or how the voting will be structured (proportional representation, majoritarian, etc). One of the major criticisms of last year’s elections in Tunisia was the confusing choice Tunisian’s had between the 100+ parties on the ballot. The Constituent Assembly may very well look to change this in the constitution, favoring fewer parties by requiring seats to be awarded only after exceeding a certain threshold of votes. The longer smaller parties remain independent, the more difficult it will be for them if an electoral system is chosen that disfavors them.

Secondly, and most importantly, while secular parties are busy bickering in Tunis, the country is becoming a one party system. For every meeting between Afek and PDP in Tunis, Ennahdha is opening another office in a small town in the hinterlands. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi meets foreign dignitaries, even though he holds no official post in the government while opposition leaders struggle to fill school rooms with supporters.

Ennahdha is getting ready for the next 50 years of politics in Tunisia, building its infrastructure and its future leaders. In most cities you will find no other political offices besides Ennahdha. Tunisian voters in many areas will make their choices in the next elections having met no own from any other party. At a time when Tunisians are debating their very future, Tunisia’s secularists are not putting themselves at the table.

* (Update) A fundamental issue that I have not addressed in this analysis is the actual policies of secular parties and whether or not they resonate with Tunisian voters. This is obviously a crucial element to their success and the subject of a future post.

Ennahdha’s reelection strategy takes shape

For those who missed my article last week on ForeignPolicy.com, here’s a link and an excerpt:

While outside the country Tunisia’s successful elections and relatively peaceful transition have been praised, Tunisians have been more skeptical. Many have criticized the government’s slow pace and opposition parties have capitalized on the perceived inaction by the government on the economy and security situation. The electoral timetable, along with the government’s recently released budget, are both tactical and strategic. The timetable will ward off criticism of its intentions to hold power indefinitely and the deadline will set the pace for constitution writing in the coming year. The budget-busting spending will aim to curry favor among voters, who are eager to see tangible material benefits from their historic uprising. Together, one begins to see the foundations for Ennahda’s electoral strategy.

The announcement of the timetable is most welcome and a relief to those who feared the government would try to preserve its mandate indefinitely. Despite that the timetable exceeds the one-year limit that had been agreed upon by a coalition of parties, including Ennahdha, last September, it will allow all political parties to focus on their electoral strategies, their potential weaknesses, and areas they will want to exploit for electoral gain next March.

For Ennahda, its strategy approaching elections is coming into focus. It is based on three principles — spend big, marginalize opponents, and blame others for failures.

…..

Ennahda’s strategy is not just a Machiavellian calculation to retain power; it is also due to the corner they have been painted into by their opponents. For decades Ennahda has been labeled an extremist party, despite all efforts to throw off the label — including 20 years of statements by the movement’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi. The party seems to have finally realized that it is more advantageous to use extremist terminology on its opponents than to fight it. The same is true for the economic situation. Before the new government even took power critics were blaming the party for indecision and inaction on the economy. While Ennahda’s strategy is political and often mischaracterizes its opponents, the party is playing by the electoral rules.

The electoral timetable announcement and the agreement to reinstate the electoral commission, the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE), are positive steps. Ennahda has done the country a service in setting out a clear path. It is in the driver’s seat for the next 12 months and it will be an interesting ride to see how Ennahda campaigns and whether its opponents can find a counter-attack against what remains a very popular movement.

The strange return of Habib Bourguiba to Tunisia

On Saturday in Monastir a strange event took place. Gathered together in the same place for the first time in decades were the Destourians – supporters of the former Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. They met to discuss plans to provide a unified political front in an effort to return the country to what it described as the path it departed from under Ben Ali, and the equally fatal path of the Islamists.

Blogger for French magazine Marianne, Martine Gozlan, described the event:

…forces of modernity are looking to unite to resist obscurantism: that was the sense of the mass meeting held Saturday, March 24 in Monastir under the auspices of Beji Caid Essebsi, the previous Prime Minister, and in the wake of the founding father whose massive portrait dominated the meeting: Habib Bourguiba….The old Beji Caid Essebsi, who was once his traveling companion, and had the difficult task of leading post Ben Ali Tunisia to the polls last October 23rd, had assembled all the forces of the centrist opposition on Saturday March 24th.

The reformation of Destourian parties has elicited many reactions here from across the political spectrum. While the potential impact of a return to Bourguibism excites many Tunisians, to others it is the first step toward a return of authoritarianism.

You don’t have to go far in Tunisia to find people who love Habib Bourguiba. A populist and a nationalist, Tunisia’s first leader after independence modernized the country, Many Tunisians, particularly those born before independence, see Bourguiba not only as a force for good, but as a true leader of Tunisians – he is their Papa. And while many of his supporters will decry his authoritarianism, they also applaud what they saw was a relatively uncorrupt individual who only wanted the best for his country. These people often also supported Ben Ali, at least up until the point that his nepotism and kleptocratic ways became known. During the uprising last year, they didn’t want an overthrow of the system, just a cleaning up.

Detractors of Bourguisme tell a very different story. They see Bourguiba as a meglomaniac who denied human rights and set the stage for Ben Ali. To Ennahdha supporters, Bourguiba relentlessly pursued, persecuted, and imprisoned them. But not only that – Bourguiba reviled Islamists. When asked what separated him from an Islamist, Bourguiba replied: “Fourteen centuries.”

When Bourguiba-era minister Beji Caid Essebsi stepped back into the political scene last February to take over the caretaker government, both hardcore Ennahdha supporters and human rights activists squirmed. While he justified his lack of fundamental reforms by saying that he was just an interim leader and that the elected leaders should make those decisions, his opponents saw someone who wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the ancien regime well-placed to retakeover the country.

Recent statements, followed by Saturday’s conference in Monastir, by other so-called Destourians have put many people edge, just as they have excited many who see in the party a chance to unify the country.

To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.

Tunisian-American journalist Wafa Ben Hassine sees trouble in the potential alliance between leftists and members of the former regime:

It appeared that Essebsi and his crew were desperately seeking to rebrand the RCD. The Caid Essebsi and co. are succeeding, albeit only within a small niche. To this niche, Essebsi is simply the reincarnation of Bourguiba, representing modernity and ‘balance’ in social values….

….What is alarming are the scores of left-wing parties that made their way down to Monastir yesterday. The left should be more careful about its actions and what they reflect – the Tunisian left is already painted as an elitist segment of society. Why exacerbate the image, and in turn appear to betray the very values that led to Ben Ali’s ouster?

Bourguiba, over 24 years since being deposed, still stirs emotions and makes headlines in this country which he built in his image.  Almost half of the population knows Bourguiba only from history books – many of which are being rewritten as we speak. Whether the reconstitution of his party and his ideas will take hold is far from certain.

Independence day in Tunisia – reactions from around the web

Yesterday Tunisians celebrated their independence day. On a beautiful Spring day in the capital, thousands gathered to show their determination to further the gains they have made as a society – not just since independence from the French over 50 years ago, but from the uprising just 15 months ago.

The reactions across the web were plentiful. Although French media focused on the secularist rally in which thousands of Tunisians marched for a civil state, all reports talked about the increasing divisiveness in the country – pitting for the first time Tunisian citizens against Tunisian citizens. President Marzouki’s addressed this issue in a speech focused on national unity:

This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences…National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division.”

Bidules blog criticized Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s speech for ignoring Tunisia’s history:

Despite differences of opinion and all that happened in the post-colonial era, Bourguiba, along with Farhat Hached, Hedi Chaker and others, played a very important role in the independence of Tunisia and the implementation establishment of a modern state and strong institutions. To forget this important day is unfair and smells of of ingratitude.

Reuters reports on the secular demonstration in downtown Tunis:

Carrying Tunisia’s red and white flag, several thousand protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of protests that ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 last year and sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We came in our thousands to say to those who want to change the course of the revolution that we will confront you,” said rights activist Jaber Ben Hasan, amid chants of “the people want a civil state”.

“We are here to bring victory to the civil state,” he said, referring to a state that was not governed by religious law.

Marianne reports ominously of a Tunisia divided in two as secularists demonstrated downtown while religious groups gathered by the thousands in a neighboring suburb:

And now, once again there were two Tunisias on Tuesday, March 20, for Independence Day. The beautiful, rebellious, feminine, youthful, draped in the national flag,with its bright red star as the eye in its cresent. She marched cheerfully down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the very place where she had made the revolution on January 14 that she refuses to see betrayed. And then there was another, the dark, the veiled, the bearded, not laughing, men on one side, women on the other, and nobody moves … frozen between the green flag from the Koran and the Salafist black standard. This one had gathered at the El Menzah Dome, a few miles from the center of Tunis, to proclaim the divine urgency to introduce Sharia law in the Constitution now being developed by the Assembly…

France’s Le Point gets reactions from Tunisians downtown:

“The Tunisian people are divided. If we continue like this, I would not use the term civil war, but … hatred among Tunisians that is emerging could complicate things. I do not want to put a blinders on, but the gap is growing. And if things do not move quickly, I fear that it will become more complicated,” laments Khaled Bouassida, dentist and member of the association Kolna Tunes.

This is a fear shared by Bassem. Proudly wearing his T-shirt which says  “Tolerant Tunisian,” the engineer of 29 years denounced “the attempt to divide the people.” “They want to create a war between Muslims and those they consider less Muslim. But the Tunisian people are diverse.” At his side, Hussam, an accountant, went further: “I am tolerant because I’m Arab and Muslim”

The President of the Association for Women and Dignity, Zahra Marrakchi, writing in Leaders is more optimistic following the day’s events:

Leaving the [Bourguiba] avenue, the protesters were still waving their flags, cars spread through the city in a concert of horns, waving flags. It was a wonderful event that took place without any accident or incident. No slogan called for hatred, exclusion or the use of force…It was a great day with a promises that there will be others.

Similarly inspired, French blogger, and longtime Tunisia resident, Benoit Delmas gives Tunisia an A+ for yesterday’s events:

The multitude of flags was proof that Tunisians do not want Salafist forces. A Republican atmosphere characterized this beautiful day. March 20, we commemorate independence. 56 years ago, France left Tunisia free to her fate. Today we whistled, shouted, smiled so that the country is a peaceful democracy. Tunisia, where veiled women stood alongside unveiled women in tolerance. Today, thousands of people demanded a Tunisia without Sharia. In peace, good humor, with conviction. Mabrouk.

Tunisia Live reports on the mixed feelings Tunisian’s have for their independence, and the increasingly common concern that Gulf countries and the United States are pulling the strings of the government:

Independence day brings mixed feelings for many Tunisians. While the day officially marked the end of the French colonial period, and the beginning of an era where Tunisia was recognized as a modern state, it also began an era of authoritarian rule. One political group was out distributing signs with photos of Tunisia’s first President and leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. “This is your worst nightmare,” the signs read.

Mohammed, a restaurant owner, said that even after Independence and the Tunisian Revolution he doesn’t feel like Tunisia is a truly independent country. “I don’t believe that Tunisia is really independent, before the Revolution I knew we were controlled by France. Now we are controlled by Qatar or America– I don’t really know and it does not matter, we are not really independent,” he said.

The question of divisiveness is a new and difficult question for many Tunisians. On the positive side, it is a symbol of a newfound pluralism. On the other hand, it has shown the dark side of Tunisia and exposed vast differences in opinion on important issues – including most importantly, religion. It’s a debate we will continue to hear a lot about in the coming months.

Secularists celebrate first victory over Islamists in student union elections

Tunisian secularists are abuzz today over the apparent landslide victory of the UGET (l’Union générale des étudiants tunisiens) over the UGTE (l’Union générale tunisienne des étudiants). These came just a week after violent clashes between Salafists and other students at Manouba University. Jeune Afrique reports:

Symbolized by the blocking of the Faculty of Arts of Manouba, but also by various violent incidents in Gabes, Sousse and Kairouan, Islamic-Salafi pressure just suffered a crushing blow.

The Agence France Presse reports:

UGET [secularist] candidates dominated the elections, which took place Thursday, collecting 250 seats out of 284 in forty institutions, according to the official website of the union.
“This is a historic victory”, said Secretary General of Uget, Alaa Zaatour, 14 Mag site.”Academic institutions with more than 4000 students voted almost unanimously for Uget,”he said.

It’s difficult to put any student union election in a broader context. These elections have not been widely followed by the Tunisian media and it is unclear the impact it might have on the direction of universities, let alone society at large.

Jeune Afrique reports on reactions from UGET members:

Ennahda has been poorly served by the support it has given to the Salafists, said Meriem Belhaj, a law student at El-Manar [University]. By not taking a position, it [Ennahhda] suggested that it approved of the violence that has taken place this academic year, which could cause the year to be cancelled; this is not the will of the majority. The students have many concerns, of course, but they are not religious in nature and, especially, do not apply to teachers. “

While many quetsions remain unanswered, there are two lessons we can draw.

First, this was the first victory by secularists since the revolution. Despite continued protests and endless commentary since the uprising last January, Tunisian secularists have been consistently beaten in the polls and at the ballot box by Islamists. In that sense, this is at the very least a moral victory for them.

Secondly, while news reports have not focused on turnout or how the elections were conducted, the UGET seemed to be able to mobilize its membership in a way that secular political parties have been unable to do. Voter mobilization was one of the keys to Ennahdha’s victory in October and has been a major stumbling block for secularists in Tunisia.