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.