Political party update: Tunisian felloul step out, Communists rise, and Ennahdha stumbles

Last weekend, in the midst of instability caused by rioting across the country, Beji Caid Essebsi launched a political initiative aimed at being a unifying, secular force in Tunisian politics. Eighty-six year old Essebsi played an important role in Tunisia’s transition last year, balancing the interests of revolutionaries, Islamists, and former regime folks for just long enough to hold free elections. While many respected his role in the transition, his political ambitions have caused uproar among those who think that he represents a return to the past.

Leaders.com reports on the initiative:

“The least we can say is that “the initiative” has left no one indifferent. 48 hours after the announcement of the party, “The Call for Tunisia,” the controversy is not likely to subside in the political microcosm. While its supporters see it as the hope for salvation that will save the country from Ennahdha’s grip, his opponents denounce the return of former regime officials (fouloul)….Of the three-party coalition government, Ettakatol is the one most threatened by the initiative of Caid Essebsi.”

During the meeting Essebsi called for Tunisians to unify behind the new movement and to accept the gains of the past 50 years, including the rights of women. Many also saw this as a call for former regime officials to come into the fold. Lilia Weslaty, critical of the project, writes in Nawaat:

Thus, a war of identity seems increasingly visible between the two major political camps in Tunisia. Between Ennahdha and RCD, some Tunisians are faced with choosing between the plague and cholera.

Tunisian blogger Sarah Ben Hamadi calls for action against the two fronts:

This…is the result of the absence of an opposition worthy of the name. That’s the real problem, the opposition is not organized and is not ready to be (a true opposition). Why do we gather behind Caid Essebsi when we could come together without him and without remnants of the old regime? A third way is possible and it must exist. I dreamed of a new Tunisia, opposite to that shown to us by Ennahdha, different from that spoken by Béji Caid Essebsi. It is not yet born, we must act!

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With a clear platform, no associations with Islamists or the former regime, and a decidedly non-elitist approach, the Tunisian Communist Party (POCT) appears to continue to gain ground in Tunisia. A recent poll has shown that POCT leader Hamma Hammami’s popularity continues to increase, now surpassing Ahmed Chebbi of the PDP. While polls are notoriously difficult to read in Tunisia, the numbers do correspond to what appears to be a solid grassroots backing for the long-time resistance leader. There is likely a limit to communist popularity in Tunisia due to the association many have with the party as atheistic, but it nevertheless seems to be showing a way forward for liberal, secular groups who have yet to galvanize grassroots supporters.

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It was arguably a bad week for Ennahdha as party leader Rached Ghannouchi’s call on his supporters to march last Friday was rejected by the Interior Ministry. Following riots across the country, Ghannouchi had called on supporters to support sacred values (as a counter to the supposedly offensive artwork shown in La Marsa).

But with tensions high and violence widespread, the government finally decided that a march would only risk inflaming tensions. The Interior Ministry, led by Ennahdha member Ali Lariyedh, however, showed its ability to mobilize when necessary and take control of the situation. Speculation over Lariyedh’s role in the party will only increase in the run up to the Ennahdha party congress next month – rumors of his rivalry with Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali have been reported.

Finally, after the most difficult week yet for the government since their elections, rumors have been spreading about a possible split in the party between its more moderate and more conservative sides. While the rumors remain just that, many have speculated about the party’s ability to hold these two sides together. The discourse last week by many Ennahdha officials, which put blame on both artists and rioters, was condemned by many as too deferential to the party’s conservative branch.

In other Ennahdha news, Ennahdha party cofounder Salah Karker, who had been in exile for 20 years returned to Tunisia from France.

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Ettakatol, led by Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, announced a merger with the Tunisian Worker’s Party. Further evidence of political consolidation in Tunisia.

More on Tunisian political parties hereherehere, and here.

A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  - the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

Tension and uncertainty battle hope ahead of Sunday’s Elections

I arrived at my local Carrefour this morning at 8:45. The parking lot was half full even though the store doesn’t open until 9. With my shopping cart I navigated my way toward the entrance with about 300 other folks, all waiting for the gates to rise. At 9 a.m. exactly, the race was on – first milk, then water.

Milk and water have been in short supply for months now, though the elections have exacerbated the situation. With food stocks low in neighboring Libya, many consumer products have been shipped over the border. Milk is especially precious as it receives government price subsidies. Although the Tunisian government announced emergency measures to import milk from Germany, consumers have begun to hoard products when they become available – you never know when they might run out. Consumer uncertainty about how the elections will be handled has aggravated the situation, as I witnessed this morning.

A day after the end of political campains, party flyers littered the shopping carts at the local supermarket

The scene at Carrefour is emblematic of the uncertainty many Tunisians feel before the first free elections of their lives. While the Tunisians I speak to are justifiably proud of their hard won right to choose their leader, they are anxious whether their fellow citizens will respect the vote and, perhaps more importantly, whether their elected leaders will work on their behalf.

In the final week of the election, I spoke to dozens of Tunisians who had yet to make up their minds. Though it’s not as if they hadn’t tried. In fact, throughout the dozens of elections I’ve witnessed in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve never seen an election this wide open, with an electorate that takes its responsibilities this seriously. Of course, we read everyday now that Ennahdha will win on Sunday, but the reality is that they are not expected to win over 50 percent, and the most recent polling data suggested that the majority of Tunisians were still undecided. A common thought I hear is, “I’ve narrowed it down to two parties, I’ll decide on Sunday.”

The other fear is that the elections could be marred by violence. The police and military have mobilized en masse, 44,000 extra police and military will be on the streets. However, as we have repeatedly seen during the 10 month transition since Ben Ali’s departure, even relatively small manifestations can have important consequences. While the media has played an important role in magnifying these events, it is also new and shocking to Tunisians. The police state of Ben Ali did not allow dissent, raising a false sense of cohesion among Tunisians. The January revolution shattered these illusions and Sunday’s vote will be the first legitimate manifestation of these differences. There is a real fear that the elections could open up yet bigger rifts between Tunisians.

And yet, despite these fears, Tunisians have already begun to head to the polls abroad. Good weather and a lot of positive energy may encourage reluctant voters to join their activist compatriots at the polls tomorrow.

What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha

For those who are following me on Twitter, you’ve probably sensed my indignation at the flock of reporters who have descended on Tunisia this week to cover the elections. About 90 percent of the stories filed so far are about Ennahdha. So how about another take on the elections?

First, the facts: Ennahdha, the Islamist party, has run an incredible ground game. I traveled across northern Tunisia last week and they were easily the most visible party. There is clearly lots of grassroots support and they are well organized, much more than any other party. But, the party never polled more than 40 percent in any poll I’ve see. In fact, mostly, their figures are about 25-30 percent. Given the voting system (proportional representation with last remainders), they will probably receive a slightly lower proportion of seats than their percentage of the vote. Whether or not that’s fair, they’re the rules of the game.

Against this reality, we have all the major newspapers (New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Le Monde, etc) running stories exclusively about Ennahdha. The usual questions come up, is the Arab world ready? is Tunisia ready? is the West ready? is Ennahdha telling the truth? can they be trusted?

These are fine questions to ask, but they conveniently ignore 75 percent of the population that is likely not to vote for Ennahdha! Let’s have a look today at these folks.

The PDP is probably the most widely known party in Tunisia outside Ennahdha. They have a good organization, and a lot of institutional support, but they have not been able to galvanize voters in the way Ennahdha has. A common complaint I hear is that they are the “usual politicians.” They are running the anti-Ennahdha campaign. They have said they oppose any coalition with Ennahdha and will look to lead a secular coalition. They have polled as high as 20 percent early in the campaign, but have not received that level of support in any recent poll. A lot of their support appears to have gone to Ettaktol.

Ettaktol (or FDTL, by its French acronym) is the main secular competitor to PDP. They surprised folks over the summer by polling in the double digits, overtaking PDP in some polls. Their platform is similar to PDP, but they have struck a more conciliatory note and have called on a national unity government, excluding no parties (including Ennahdha). This has been a key point in the last days of the campaign following a spat between the PDP and Ennahdha on forming a coalition.

A key to the election will be which party comes out ahead – PDP or Ettaktol. The latter could represent greater reconciliation, while the former would represent a rebuke to  Ennahdha. If either party polls greater than 20 percent it will be a real victory; under 10 percent would be a defeat.

While PDP and Ettaktol have taken the spotlight of secular parties, other parties do have solid grassroots support and could surprise on Sunday. The CPR, run by Moncef Marzouki, provokes strong reactions from Tunisians. He is outspoken, undoubtedly smart, and a shrewd politicians. In my experience, he’s a love him or hate him candidate, and only anecdotally, he  seems to garner a lot of support from young men (in the other major media narrative prior to the Islamists, these were the folks that started the revolution).

Afek is somewhat of a surprise as well. They have never polled very well, but they continue to work their ground game, even in places one would not expect a pro-business party to receive support. One of the big complaints of rural Tunisians I’ve heard is that no one comes to talk to them. Afek’s efforts to reach out may just surprise on the upside. If either of these parties receives more than 5 percent that will be a good showing and will position them more strongly in an eventual coalition.

The UPL is run by a successful business man and has good name recognition, thanks to a massive ad buy during the summer. I’ve witnessed UPL rallies that would be characterized as “astroturf” events in U.S. politics, meaning they stage their popular support. I would be surprised if the moves paid off in terms of number of seats.

Finally, there are the parties associated with former Ben Ali officials, el Watan and Moudabara. The latter is run by Kamel Morjane, who many suspected would take over for Ben Ali during his last days. He was seen as somewhat of an outsider to the regime, and not as corrupt as the other cabinet members. It is unclear how either of these parties would fit into a coalition, as most other parties have run on platforms that call on a complete break with the past. If they garner widespread support (above 5 percent), it could be interpreted in two ways – either as a call for a return to law and order, or as a wake-up call for the number of people who actually liked the former regime.

Finally, no polling has been conducted (as far as I can tell) on the Tunisians overseas. Of the 33 electoral districts, 6 are overseas. Over ten percent (1.1 million) of the Tunisian population lives abroad, mostly in Europe, in particular, France. Several smaller parties and independent candidates could do well in these overseas districts. It is assumed that the majority of electors would support secular parties, but this has not been backed up by polling data. It would be quite interesting, for example, if Ennahdha did well in France – most likely refocusing the results, to the pleasure of the French media, back on the Islamists in France.

These are just a few brief notes on the story one is unlikely to hear in the run up to the elections. There are lots of candidates, and lots of opinions in Tunisia. I salute any mainstream journalist who can show this side of Tunisia to the world. Three outlets are providing comprehensive coverage of the Tunisian elections in English, they are well worth a read: the GuardianAlJazeera, and Tunisia Live.

[Editorial note: Any commentary provided should not be construed as endorsement, see my comment on covering the elections .

This is my third article in a series of posts in the run up to the elections. See also, Will Tunisian Elections Really be Free and Fair? and Tunisians Get Ready to Rock the Vote.

Law and order speech aimed directly at ordinary Tunisians

This morning Tunisian Prime Minister par interim Caid Essebsi gave a law and order speech that attempted to calm the country in advance of elections, now just 6 weeks away. Essebsi’s speech called on the security service to maintain order throughout the country, in particular through the application of the state of emergency law. Under the emergency law, the government has the right to forbid sit-ins and strikes, something that has become increasingly common in Tunisia since the revolution of January 14. Essebsi’s speech came on a day when police officers staged a protest (some call it a sit-in) in central Tunis. The Prime Minister confronted the police by calling their labor union illegal and ordering their return to work.

Bloggers in Tunisia have reacted so far with alarm at some of these measures, which they see as directed against protest movements that have received a heavy-handed reaction by the ministry of the interior. Most recently, an August 15 protest by magistrates was marred by violence from police officers (including plain-clothed officers) and heavy use of tear gas. Many politicians will be disappointed that Essebsi did not call for a simultaneous referendum with the election of the constitutional assembly aimed at ensuring a popular vote on the nature of the next government (parliamentary versus presidential).

The PM mentioned attacks that have occurred around the country in recent days, resulting in several deaths and serious injuries in clashes between security forces and malfaiteurs. It is unclear who exactly is behind the violence, many blame former partisans of deposed president Ben Ali, while others blame the situation on general lawlessness, including the release of hundreds of violent criminals during the height of the revolution.

Whatever the cause, Tunisians are worried about the security situation as well as the general chaos that has enveloped the country. Despite a return to relative stability in the capital, residents must face many new worries, from the malign to the mundane. Garbage worker strikes have made the once (mostly) clean capital, a visibly dirtier and less sanitary environment, while homeowners have to increasingly deal with break ins and vandalism to property. Support for sit-ins and strikes has dropped dramatically in the most recent poll by the Tunisian press agency. Essebsi’s move corresponds to an increasing feeling among Tunisians that the situation of the country is out of control and that the government must take control.

The interim government is in a difficult situation. Lacking a mandate to govern, but with extremely high expectations from its citizens, it has struggled to hold together until the October elections. Essebsi’s speech today is the government’s latest attempt to buy time until the elections. While it will surely arouse suspicions from the Tunisian activists and opponents outside the government, it clearly is aimed at addressing the anxieties of a population hoping for greater peace and stability in their lives.

The struggle for dignity – Comparing Georgian and Tunisian democracies

I recently had the pleasure to visit the Republic of Georgia. On top of escaping the stifling summer heat for the cool mountains, I was able to talk to a number of Georgians about their country’s  steps down the road of democracy. It was impossible not to compare these thoughts with those that I hear on a daily basis here in Tunisia.

Some background on Georgia:

The Republic of Georgia gained independence from Russia with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. What followed was a period of chaos and civil war that culminated in the election of Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995. A former Soviet statesman and Communist party leader, Shevardnadze led many reforms in Georgia, including a campaign of Westernization and the signing of the Azerbaijan – Black Sea pipeline deal that frustrated already strained relations with Russia. Despite these achievements, his rule was marred by rampant corruption and rent-seeking by senior officials, and his own family. Following flawed elections in 2003, Shevardnadze was forced to resign due to large protests in what became to be known as the Rose Revolution.

In 2004, Mikhael Saakashvili, the leader of the opposition, was elected and embarked on a campaign to root out corruption, while maintaining a staunchly Western-oriented foreign policy (including a disastrous war with Russia in 2008). Saakashvili is credited with jump-starting the economy, but his rule has concerned many as becoming too authoritarian.

During my visit to Georgia, I asked anyone who would talk to me about their thoughts about the country. While many people I spoke to voiced serious concerns about the president, there was no doubt about the country’s commitment to democracy. I asked one person, who had just rattled off a litany of things that were wrong about the country (the security service was too strong and needed reform, the state controlled media was biased, etc), whether the country was really democratic. His response surprised me, “of course it is, it’s just that sometimes democracy needs to be shaken up from time to time.”

In Tunisia, the mood is gloomy. A recent poll indicated that Tunisians are more and more frustrated with the political process and are uncertain about the future of the country. This echoes what one often hears on the street, that the politicians cannot be trusted, that the elections will not bring real change – in essence – that the revolution of January 14 has been highjacked.

It is always dangerous making comparisons between countries with different circumstances, people, and cultures. Even across the countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb it is difficult for analysts to compare countries that have thrown off the shackles of their dictators. It is interesting though that the root causes in Georgia as in the Arab world remain remarkably similar – the search for dignity and opportunity as opposed to corruption, where honest work does not bring greater freedom or justice. Georgians struggled through 12 years of mismanagement and corruption following independence before they found their voice. When they overturned their leadership, they did so prior to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, but the reasons were the same, just as they had been following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While means change, human nature remains remarkably similar. What lessons have Georgians learned from their revolutions, coups, colonialism and unstable neighbors (all present in Tunisia in the last 100 years as well)? As one Georgian told me, Georgians are more vigilant than before they do not take anything for granted.

The upcoming elections are an opportunity for Tunisians to show that their commitment to voicing their opinions will not be a once in a lifetime protest movement, but rather, the beginning of a long and constant struggle to create the republic they deserve.

Countdown to default – Tunisian style

Ineffective outreach strategies left partisans poised to start this week locked in a bitter and messy fight to mobilize voters to take action. Over the weekend, they focused their attention on a two stage proposal. Their goal was to make it more attractive to voters. By Monday afternoon, they thought they were close, the President even offered a televised eappeal on Monday to reach out to the recalcitrant. But by Tuesday, it was unclear whether they could meet the August 2 deadline, with a potential catastrophic impact on all parties for the upcoming elections.

The August 2 deadline is not the U.S. debt ceiling, nor is the President Obama, but the impact could be as far reaching as a financial collapse. While the debt ceiling debate in the U.S. is all important in the American news cycle this week, Tunisians face the same August 2 deadline to legitimize their revolution. In exactly 8 days voter registration closes for Tunisian voters to vote in their first free and fair elections.

Despite a massive publicity campaign, voter registration rates have come in as a trickle, rather than a flood. As of this morning, less than 900,000 Tunisians were registered, out of an estimated 7 million eligible voters.

Despite registration booths staying open over the entire holiday weekend and a call over the weekend for Tunisian bloggers to mobilize their followers, so far less than 15 percent of voters have registered.

The impact of a weak voter registration could have far reaching implications for the political transition in Tunisia, not only potentially deligitimizing the elections, but also disenfranchizing scores of potential voters come October 23 when Tunisians go to the polls.

Over the next 8 days I will be following this story closely.

And for all my Tunisian friends: remember, it’s not just about registering yourself, take your family, friends, and everyone you know to the municipal polling station.

[Edit: After I posted this, I noticed Kacem4Change’s post on the Tunisian blogging effort. It’s a good short summary of the outreach efforts by engaged Tunisians, keeping the revolution alive.

Parties fail to take advantage of political opening

The violence and disruptions of this past weekend, coupled with the most recent address by the Tunisian prime minister, offered an opportunity for political parties to come forward and reach out to voters. By all measures, they are failing the test.

As I noted earlier this week, Prime Minister Essebsi’s speech prompted all of the major political parties in Tunisia to take action. Some condemned his speech (Ennahdha), others lauded it (PDP, Akef). In the end, though, what could have been an opening, has turned into more infighting, and less attention to reaching out to the average Tunisian voter.

Ennahdha took the opportunity to fight back against the Prime Minister, insisting that the government had defiled religious establishments by looking for protesters within mosques in Menzel Bourguiba and Tunis. This played to their base, but it also showed that they were not ready to focus attention exclusively on the next two months of political campaigning and elections.

On the other hand, the centrist parties quickly adopted the narrative of the Prime Minister to condemn violence (which they were quick to subtly blame on religious extremists, and not elements close to the former regime). However, after an almost unanimous vote in the transitional council on political party organizations and campaign finance, the PDP quickly backed away from the vote and accused the chairman of the council of playing political games. This was seen as a cynical move to protect their corporate donations. Adding insult to injury, they walked away, walked back, and then insisted that the law is ok, but just needs to be amended.

The centrist parties organized a rally in central Tunis today, ostensibly against violence, that was mostly an opportunity to distinguish themselves from Ennahdha. The event was poorly attended (I guessed around 500, though other sources placed the turnout at about 3,000), given the number of parties represented.

I think that it is highly probably that this kind of game playing from all sides is one of the biggest reasons for the apathy for voter registration. As of today, less than 400,000 Tunisians have registered to vote out of 7 million voters. They have until August 2 to complete the process in order to vote in this fall’s elections. Certainly there are other reasons for the poor turnout, but the actions of the political parties this week have not helped earn the trust of Tunisian voters.

Decried by activists, Tunisian PM’s speech spurs parties to action

I wrote yesterday about the continuing disorder and violence in Tunisia over the weekend, provoked by activists attempting to reoccupy the Kasbah on Friday. The Tunisian Prime Minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi, responded to this violence in a speech on Monday that upset activists and placed the blame squarely on extremist political parties.

Essebsi had three goals in his speech, by most accounts he has succeeded on two of them, and the third is uncertain.

First, Essebsi wanted to create a cleavage between those who are mostly concerned with preserving the goals of the revolution and those that want to move on to the elections and getting the country back to work. Polls show that the vast majority of Tunisians are glad to have overthrown the regime, but they want to move on and the top priority should be jobs, security, and the economy. However, many activists have been upset at the slow pace of reforms, in particular in the security apparatus and over the weekend, attacks on journalists. Apart from the twittersphere, Essebsi wins this point easily with the masses.

Second, he wanted to bring legitimate political parties back to the table at the transitional commission (la Haute Instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution) in order to set the stage for the political campaigns and the elections. In tandem, he tried to exclude political parties that disrupt the process and call into question the legitimacy of the commission’s work. The latter point was aimed at Ennahda and other political parties who had recently withdrawn from the commission in an attempt to increase their representation.

The response today has been swift from all sides. Ennahda immediately held a press conference in which they lined up with the PM’s ideas about avoiding violence at all costs and making sure that Tunisia stayed on track for a peaceful and fair election. The main trade union (UGTT) also voiced its support for unity and non-violence. Meanwhile, the centrist party Afek Tunis smelled blood and subtly called out Ennahda and the far left parties for their lack of respect for the transitional commission and the trade unions and aligned parties for the continued sit-ins in the country.

Essebsi raised the stakes for those parties who could benefit by saying that on one hand they wanted the transition to go well, but on the other did not want to participate in the agreed upon forum in which to participate. With over 60 percent of Tunisians not having made up their minds on who to vote, this is another win for Essebsi among all except the partisans.

Finally, he wanted to prepare voters for a potentially tumultuous run-up to the October 23 elections by essentially telling them to stay the course, ignore the extremists, and let the police do their work. The question is how long Tunisians will accept the  economic and security situation.

The speech was well-timed and spoke over the cacophony of the political chattering classes. For the time being, he seems to have reached the Tunisian people and garnered support for the transitional process at its most needed time, and he has brought the political parties with him. The risk, as I mentioned yesterday, is that if at some point there is a true split between the government and centrist parties on one side, and Ennahda and perhaps the far left on the other, there could be an added destabilization of the political process leading to further unrest in the country. Furthermore, while his call for calm has been accepted by all sides, one minor event could set things back considerably. Only time will tell.