November 1st marked the opening of campaigns for Tunisia’s presidential elections the 23rd of the month, and media is filled with coverage of party politics and reflections on the results of legislative elections one week ago. Secularists defeated Islamists is the verdict most commonly reported in international news outlets; Victory and defeat are relative, Tunisian journalists observe. The politicization of secularist-Islamist divisions throughout Ben Ali’s tenure and the increased incidence of religious violence since the revolution (the assassinations of Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013, the attack in the Chaambi Mountains this past July, the clash between national security forces and terrorists in Oued Elil three days before the election, etc.) reflect a true conflict that is by no means the primary feature of the country’s democratic transition nor the 2014 elections. The ISIE’s final tally last week represents «a surprising defeat for the Islamist Nahda party» only for those who do not read beyond the titles of foreign news reports that overlook intricacies of and history behind party politics over the past four years. Several Nawaat articles1 as well as reports published by the Middle East Institute, the Carnegie Endowment, and Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) offer a more textured view of Tunisia’s postrevolution parties and politics.

Victory is Relative


…the vote on 26 October is less a vote sanctioning the Troika than a profound reconfiguration of the sociopolitical landscape marred by corrupt political money and media hype that have stifled pluralism … Nidaa’s clear victory is at least a practical one for a country still in a transition phase. Seif Soudani, Tunisia: The Election of Division.

One like the other must not lose sight that victory is but relative…abstention is the logical result of an unstable political climate fed by shady dealings and money. Yassine Bellamine, Legislative Elections 2014: sanction vote for the lesser of two evils.

For many Tunisians, the vote was strategic, not an indication of support for but rather a vote against a particular party. Others, discontent with all party options, wholly abstained from casting a vote, which was certainly a factor in the low participation rate, 60 percent of the 8.4 million citizens eligible, or 3,120 million out of the 5 million citizens registered; in other words, some 5 million Tunisians were not registered and/or did not vote on elections day.


Regional Voting Patterns

Referring to the geographically-striated voting pattern that generally indicates preference for Nidaa Tounes in the North, Ennahdha in the South, and equal tallies in the middle, Nawaat contributor Seif Soudani notes that, whereas geographical trends in voting are not unusual in well-established democracies, one can usually deduce explanations based on polarized party platforms and ideologies. Soudani wonders, «In this case, are we experiencing such a dichotomy?» and directly answers his own question: «The socially-confused right that [Nidaa] embodies destabilizes even French media’s attempt to label the party with the unsuitable term of ‘secularist’.»

Political Map of Tunisia (interactive)

Instead, Nidaa’s strength in the North might be explained by a sort of political monopoly «in the Sahel region, from which the majority of former regime politicians hail and where the bulk of the country’s economic activity takes place», as Anne Wolfe wrote in an April 2013 report on Tunisia’s secular parties. According to Wolfe, four senior Nidaa members of the Sfax office resigned in December 2013 alleging the president of the electoral commission Faouzi Loumi to have established regional ties with «people who have been documented to have direct links to the system of corruption and dictatorship» (p.15).

The Relative Victor – Nidaa Tounes

The fundamental difference between us and (Ennahdha) is that we are in a democratic process, while the Islamists take their orders from God, not the people. Voters will decide between our project—part of modernity and the 21st century—and another project—religous. Beji Caid Essebsi quoted in Previewing Tunisia’s Parliamentary and Presidential Elections, POMED.

Modernity/Historical Affiliation

Aside from the secularism-Islamism dichotomy that «haunts international press», the relative victor of legislative elections Nidaa Tounes offers a few others worth examining. The party’s continuity and roots in Tunisia’s politics and history are at once advantageous and detrimental to its image; while emphasizing a vision of modernity, Nidaa also advances a nostalgic connection to Habib Bourguiba’s Destourian party that is associated with independence from the French Protectorate. The party thus distinguishes itself from the Ennahdha party whose members in exile for so many years are widely perceived to lack experience as Monica Marks and Omar Belhaj Salah point out in a Carnegie Endowment(Sada) report, Uniting for Tunisia?:

…the party’s guiding figures frequently dismiss Ennahda members as incompetent “foreigners” who have attempted to transplant outside political trends (like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism) into Tunisia. “They exist outside of Tunisian history,” said party leader Mohsen Marzouk, echoing a common refrain.

Folding its strong RCD representation into a broader Destourian identity is commonly seen as an attempt to emphasize the party’s (a) place in Tunisia’s history while disassociating from the corruption of the Ben Ali government, and (b) distinction from Ennahdha, who it has criticized as being more accountable to the Muslim Brotherhood than to Tunisians.

From Kairouan Lumière’s Page

From now on we speak of «destourian,» a term that is well understood to encourage a sort of willing ignorance of the past. Denying, in their silence, affiliation with the former President, it will be instead Habib Bourguiba, the first President of Tunisia, who is evoked to honor «the glory of Tunisia, proud of its accomplishments over the past fifty years.» In addition to the word «RCD,» it will be the name «Ben Ali» that we heretofor avoid pronouncing. Lilia Weslaty, Call of Tunisia, new party of the deus ex machina RCD.

Ideological Heterogeneity

Nidaa Tounes has patched together a motley crew of leftists, liberal progressives, Destourians, and former RCD partisans who oppose Ennahda’s rule. Even groups with nominally conflicting agendas— such as many members of the country’s principal labor union, UGTT, and the national employers’ union, UTICA—tend to support Nidaa Tounes. Monica Marks and Omar Belhaj Salah, Uniting for Tunisia?.

Another defining feature that is equally a force and an impediment for Nidaa Tounes has been the broadness of its member-base. Whereas reports portray Ennahdha’s internal governance as organized, disciplined, and democratic, Nidaa members themselves have spoken of a lack of information and inclusion in decision-making processes. Compared to Ennahdha which can claim ideological consistency, Nidaa is seen as ideologically diverse but lacking cohesion, its members united primarily in their opposition to Ennahdha (could one really be surprised then that many citizens who voted for Nidaa were compelled to do so by the same prevailing motivation?). Founding members include Secretary General Taieb Baccouche, co-founder and former president of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) as well as president of the Arab Institute for Human Rights; Azhar Lakremi and former El Amal Ettounsi activist Mohsen Marzouk of the far-left, Boujemaa Remili, former Communist party member; Wafaa Makhlouf Sayadi of the Center for Young Corporate Leaders (CJD). Among its key members and by far the most controversial are those who held positions in the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, not least of all party leader and presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi, as well as Faouzi Loumi and Mohamed Ghariani.2

…among the numerically and economically most powerful members of Nidaa Tounes are former members of Ben Ali’s party, who often have close ties to business… Anne Wolfe, Can Secular Parties Lead the New Tunisia?.

The ‘bread-and-butter’ issues

For those centrist and center-left voters, Ennahda’s perceived incompetence on bread-and-butter economic issues—not Islamism—constitutes the paramount threat. Marks and Salah, Uniting for Tunisia?

Though Tunisia’s legislative elections were largely defined by Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha vying for seats in parliament, the associated conflict of interests and ideologies does not fit into the two-dimensional secularist-versus-Islamist construct that foreign media has erected to define it. The separation/balance of politics and religion in Tunisia exists amongst socioeconomic factors and issues (regional disparities and marginalization, unemployment, inflation, etc.) and it is certainly for these reasons that so many felt what residents in Cité Ettadaman expressed (see video above) on elections day and what author Anne Wolfe aptly predicted several months ago: «many citizens do not feel represented by Ennahdha, Nidaa Tounes, or the far-left Popular Front. With the current bipolar political constellation, this section of the population risks not casting a vote at all.» Neither Ennahdha nor Nidaa Tounes, the only two parties with the financial base sufficient to carry out considerable electoral campaigns, are considered to have produced elaborate social programs and economic agendas. «…while the platform includes ambitious plans for economic revival, such as doubling the technological export capacity of the country by 2019», observes the authors of Tunisia’s Parliamentary and Presidential Elections, «it includes few specifics as to how the party plans to achieve these goals. »

Long before the present elections, Marks and Salah wrote,

For the party to succeed in the next elections, it must meaningfully address perceptions of RCD linkage, build support based on more than just Beji Caid Essebsi’s personality, and articulate a strong socio-economic vision that goes beyond defeating Ennahda. Marks and Salah, Uniting for Tunisia?.

On October 26, Tunisians went to the polls and sealed the success of Nidaa Tounes and defeat of Ennahdha. While many certainly cast their votes for their preferred party, what a great number of foreign news outlets fail to remark are the number of citizens whose votes and non-votes were strategic, reflecting dissatisfaction with both “secularist” and “Islamist” rivals, a clear indication that there is far more complexity to Tunisia’s political landscape than the two-dimensional polarization commonly prescribed by the undiscerning commentator.

1. Aside from the two pieces (by Seif Soudani and Yassine Bellamine) discussed in this article, an Opinions piece by Hamadi Aouina, We voted…and now? First lessons from the last electoral “Takhmira” in Tunisia also interprets the election results and comments on their presentation in Western media.
2. Deputies and members of Nidaa Tounes listed here are drawn from the Carnegie Endowment’s Can Secular Parties Lead the New Tunisia? (Anne Wolfe) and POMED’s Previewing Tunisia’s Parliamentary and Presidential Elections (Daniel Tavana, Alex Russell)