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.

Will the Tunisian left return to authoritarian Bourguisme – more reactions on Tunisia’s Independence Day

As I wrote yesterday, the left celebrated Tunisia’s indpendence day on Tuesday with a peaceful celebration downtown. Much of the reporting afterward was self-congratulatory – the left had shown that it can mobilize! Some reactions from the left, however, were more critical. These criticisms focus on the fact that the left seems perpetually unable to get the support of popular classes – and that could lead to a return of authoritarianism.

Emna El Hammi writes:

If this celebration was primarily a celebration for all Tunisians, it is the left who was the chief representative, and with it clichés about the so-called westernized fringe of Tunisian society. For, once again, it was the left that was in the streets to defend against the Islamists, the values of democracy and freedoms. The left are the ones who struggle to unite the working class and find themselves in a grotesque image of a champagne socialist, westernized, bourgeois and not caring about their own hedonistic pleasures, and despising the poor.

She goes on to discuss how dangerous this image is for the left:

[These] events show once again that we are still struggling to get out of the identity debate that divides society in two….The left scarcely understand that if it wants to win legitimacy among Tunisians, especially those from the working class, it needs to get out of this identity debate and focus its policy on employment, social justice and social rights, which represent the real concerns of the population. It must also have a real desire to bring together Tunisian people around a common societal goal.

And that’s where we measure the threat of a possible Destourian [Bourguibiste] comeback, these ex-RCDists who have reconverted to the principles of Bourguiba, and seek to rebuild their popular legitimacy on the back of a revolution that they never sought. The reformation of former RCDists would be incredibly damaging to the left, they have a perfect knowledge of the [political] terrain and networks that have allowed them to feed the poor under Ben Ali. What is freedom or democracy when, in front, you are offered a job and a salary…

Bidules blog echoes El Hammi’s fears of a return to Bourguisme:

The Doustouriens [Bourguibists] the RCDists {Ben Alists]…A political force that dominated the country for 55 years. Today nobody talks about it almost as if it has no weight on the [political] scene. It is ignored, media appearances are rare. Are we going to underestimate this force? Tunisia is divided into two camps: the conservatives and modernists. Are the Doustouriens taking advantage of this bipolarity and this atmosphere of instability to prepare the BIG COMEBACK?…

…These forces may rise as a viable alternative following the failure of the Troika [the ruling coalition] economically and in the fight against corruption. In addition, errors in choosing the government leaders and cases of nepotism and favoritism led to the dismay of many Tunisians. Other democratic forces have been bogged down in ideological debates and issues over identity and struggle to move from being elitist parties to popular parties.

The idea of the former ruling party, refitted as a nationalist party based on authoritarian Bourguism, coming back into party may seem far off at this point. But recent polling by the International Republican Institute shows that former Bourguiba era politician and interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, is second only to Moncef Marzouki in popularity among Tunisians, with over 80 percent supporting him. On the other hand, links to the RCD are still toxic in Tunisia and there is nothing Ennahdha would like more than to be able to brand their opponents as remnants of the former regime.

Update on Tunisian government’s reaction to extremism

As I noted last week, some members of the Tunisian government seem to be taking a harder line against religious extremism. The latest example comes from Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who spoke yesterday in a ceremony honoring two women who stood up to a group of Salafists who had dishonored Tunisia’s flag.

The Associated Press reports:

Tunisian President Marzouki warned fundamentalists Monday against any attempt to destabilize the country or to use violence for ideological reasons, a clear allusion to Salafists, whose activity has increased as of late.

“It will not be tolerated for anyone to impose his views by force, to treat others people as apostates (infidels), or to harm Tunisian citizens for ideological or political beliefs of any kind,” he warned.

Marzouki’s speech was aimed at calming criticism that the government has been unwilling to condemn acts committed by religious fundamentalists in recent months, a common complaint by secularists in Tunisia.

Secular extremists the new buzzword on the Tunisian right

In an interesting parallel to American politics, Tunisia’s right wing, predominantly the Islamist party, Ennahdha, have embarked on a campaign to call out what they consider to be “secular extremists.”

The Associated Press’s Paul Schemm reported this week:

Said Ferjani, a high ranking member of Ennahda, told The Associated Press that the last thing they wanted right now was a culture war between the Salafis and what he calls the “secular fundamentalists.”

“We are dealing with the business of government, we have floods in the north, a sinking economy and these people are talking about the burqa and the hijab (headscarf),” he said with exasperation. “I don’t think they are very grown up.”

Tunisian blogger Kaouther Ferjani recently wrote about an incident at the Constituent Assembly, where an Assembly member, Tahar Hmila, was verbally assaulted by two women:

Hmila explained that Tunisia suffers from both right-wing extremism and leftist extremism and that they “two sides of the same coin”…

…He urges the government to continue to work hard in bringing success and stability to the country as it would leave little room for both leftist and right-wing extremists to cause disruption.

With news of right wing (Islamist) extremists dominating news in recent weeks, Ennahdha and its supporters appear to be trying to balance what they perceive to be an unfair debate. Essentially, they posit that when a left winger protests for their beliefs, they’re portrayed as freedom fighters, whereas if a right winger does the same thing, they’re obscurantists looking to bring Tunisia back to the Middle Ages.

Ennahdha supporters have been dismayed by attacks on their movement, a movement they see as democratic, having finally gained power legitimately through democratic elections. And yet, despite a clear democratic mandate and a difficult period for the country, the opposition not only attacks their positions but questions their legitimacy and their commitment to democracy.

As an example, since forming the government, much of the Tunisian media has insisted on using the term, provisoire or interim, to describe the government. The explanation used is that the government was set up only for a limited period of time until a new constitution was ratified. (Of course, by the same logic, any democratic government could be called interim, by their nature they are not meant to last.) The rhetoric has appeared more petty than anything else.

Thus, when left wing Tunisians accuse the ruling party of harboring extremist sentiments, Ennahdha’s supporters get exasperated to be grouped together with jihadists and terrorists.

The calculation by Ennahdha seems to be, if you can’t convince them that you’re moderate, you should play be the same rules. It’s a dangerous, but often effective game – for both sides. We’re all extremists!

International Women’s Day – Women fight for rights in Tunisia

Combative but defensive, International Women’s Day had special meaning in Tunisia this year. Fourteen months after the Tunisian uprising, Tunisian women (and defenders of freedom for women) are still debating whether women will benefit from the overthrow of Ben Ali.

Tunisia Live reported from three different perspectives about Tunisia’s liberal Personal Status Code. Representing the view of women from the anti-democratic, banned political party Hizb al-Tahrir:

Nesrine Bouthafi, a member of Hizb Ettahrir, considers CPS to be representative of western ideals and not derived from Islamic Sharia’a. “We condemn CPS. Women in Tunisia are suffering because of this code – it is the source of their pain now,” she stated.

Referring to the increased legal accessibility Tunisian women are afforded in the CPS to the process of filing for divorce, she added that, “Women do not need divorce, but they are rather looking for comfort and peace of mind.”

Leaders.com featured a more combative take of the role of women, who had just finished protesting in front of Tunisia’s parliament:

A March 8 different than any other because this celebration takes place against a backdrop of rising fundamentalism and attempts to call into question the achievements of women. This explains the high turnout of women at the protest outside the Constituent Assembly to support women’s rights, freedom of speech and religious belief and a call to enshrine (these rights) in the new constitution of a civil and democratic state.

More than ever, Tunisian women are the best defense against obscurantism.

Against this backdrop, the Atlantic reports that while women’s rights are under threat in much of the Arab world, there is room for optimism in Tunisia:

Omezzine Khélifa, a Tunisian woman who ran unsuccessfully for parliament with the Ettakatol Party, notes that Tunisia’s Personal Status Code is the most progressive in the Arab world. “Women realize that they have the most to lose if the transition does not go well and, as a result, have continued to be very active in the political process,” she writes. Indeed, Khélifa says that through Tunisia’s progressive electoral law, women captured 27 percent of parliamentary seats in October’s election, and “women’s NGOs played a critical role in pushing the Tunisian government to lift key reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)–the first country in the region to do so.”

Have Tunisian politicians skirted the issue of Sharia?

Short answer – not quite. But it certainly will not be secular.

The official government press agency, TAP, reports today that a consensus has been found on the issue of the preamble of the constitution. This is where many conservative/Islamist politicians (e.g., Sadok Chorou) have argued Sharia (Islamic) law should be enshrined in the preamble to the constitution.

The TAP press release quotes Ennahdha member Abdelmajid Najjar:

…the preamble will state four essential elements that will be the source of inspiration in writing the next constitution, namely “the system of Islamic values,” “the reformist andcivilizational heritage of the Tunisian people,” “the goals of the revolution,” and “high human values. “

This is a step further than the current constitution which states in article 1:

Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of
government is the Republic.

Of course, it should be remembered, this is just the preamble. In Ennahdha’s draft constitution, Sharia is only mentioned by the time you get to article 10.

Ennahdha leader Rached Ghanouchi spoke about the constitution in an interview with Turkish newspaper, Zaman:

Noting that the new constitution will reflect the will of Tunisian people, al-Ghannushi said the constitution will strongly emphasize that Islam is not incompatible with democracy and modernity. He said all the members of parliament think that some values of Islam should be reflected in the constitution. Additionally, there is strong consensus among Tunisian parties that democracy, gender equality, human rights and plurality should be included in new constitution. Moreover, al-Ghannushi noted that the terms “secularism” and “laicism” will not be included in the constitution.