Since the ouster of long-time dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has been the bellwether for the revolutions that have rocked the Middle East. Three years into their revolution, Tunisians stand at a crossroads: a choice between “protecting” the revolution and sacrificing some revolutionary gains for the sake of stability. Last month’s presidential elections are, in the eyes of many hopeful Tunisians, the capstone to a tumultuous period of post-revolutionary instability.
Over twenty candidates ran in the first round elections, but to many external observers and Tunisians it was a race between two candidates that embody the fierce debate occurring within the country.
In one camp is the establishment candidate: Beji Caid Essebsi. A remnant of not only Ben Ali’s government but the government of his predecessor Habib Bourgiba, Essebsi has campaigned on providing Tunisians with a modicum of security after three years of uncertainty. Tunisians view the 88-year-old with hesitancy: his party, Nidaa Tounes, benefitted from a recent ruling that allowed former regime officials to run in elections. Leftist and secular, Essebsi’s party won a plurality of parliamentary seats in elections last month, garnering 86 seats out of 217. His campaign has been anything but clean, however, and rivals have blasted him for engaging in smear tactics. Earlier this week, he accused his opponent, Moncef Marzouki, of being the candidate of “jihadist Salafists,” a comment that sparked protests in southern cities.
Marzouki, on the other hand, is a doctor and long-time human rights activist who spent many of the pre-revolution years in exile in France before returning to become interim president. Despite his commitment to the principles of the revolution, many Tunisians hold him responsible for the country’s lack of economic growth. His campaign is one of counterattacks and reactions: he’s blasted Essebsi for the smear tactics, and he’s only just starting to court female and youth voters. He’s also filed suits against Essebsi for allegedly buying votes. His party, the Congress for the Republic, is also top-heavy, with much of its success credited to supporters of Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tunisian wing that decided not to field a candidate for the presidency and instead threw its weight behind Marzouki.
In the first round of voting, Essebsi prevailed, garnering 39 percent of the vote to Marzouki’s 33 percent. A leftist candidate, Hamma Hamami, who garnered 7 percent of the vote, appears ready to play kingmaker in the upcoming runoff elections between the two frontrunners. Already, both sides are courting endorsements: last week Essebsi earned the endorsement of Slim Riahi, a businessman who garnered five percent of the votes in the first round.
The official campaign window for the December 21 runoff election is from the ninth to the nineteenth of this month, and both candidates are likely to focus their messages on the three issues that most concern Tunisians at the moment. The first of these is the security situation, both internal and external. Internally, many Tunisians are worried about the growing threat of domestic terror. Tunisia, after all, is sending the most fighters to join the ranks of the Islamic State. Moreover, shootouts are now common, the southern border with Libya is largely porous, and an influx of Libyan refugees has stretched resources.
Ennahda, which critics accuse of creating an environment conducive to terrorism, has tried to blame the former regime, and by extension, Essebsi. As Meherzia Labidi, Ennahda’s leading official in parliament, told me last week: “I cannot stand seeing young Tunisians in line voting here and in Syria cutting off heads. The radicalization of the youth is the legacy of Ben Ali’s dictatorship.”
Essebsi’s response has been to shift the focus to external actors. Nidaa Tounes spokesman Lazhar Akremi told The National Interest: “The threat from outside Tunisia—specifically in Mali and Libya—is more dangerous than the domestic underground. The military is not prepared to deal with these external factors. Ben Ali’s intelligence structure was focused on the internal, and now the threats are external. New forces will have to be created to deal with this.”
The second pressing issue for Tunisians is the economy. The Nida Tounes spokesman cited above told me that Tunisia would need at least $30 million a year just to maintain basic infrastructure. Recent studies show that the policies that produced the stagnant economy under Ben Ali are still firmly in place. Some candidates are therefore staking their campaign on the issue. Hamouda Ben Slama, an independent candidate and former official under Bourgiba, told me that Tunisia doesn’t necessarily need U.S. aid; it needs the U.S. to help improve Tunisian exports and encourage foreign investment. Tunisians of all stripes are frustrated that their economic progress has lagged far behind the political.
Beyond security and economic issues, Tunisians are considered with social issues. Many of these social issues predate the revolution, including the stratification of wealth, the disparity between the urban north and rural south, Islamism versus secularism. That being said, all these issues have been exacerbated by a post-revolutionary system that has lacked stability in the three years since Ben Ali’s ouster. Both Essebsi and Marzouki are looking to ease the social anxiety in the country, but their fiery rhetoric leaves much to be desired.
The next few weeks will see the most heated political activity in Tunisia’s modern history. Both Essebsi and Marzouki are doubling down on their power bases: Essebsi in the urban north, Marzouki in the rural south. Both are dialing up attacks on each other. They know which issues matter to Tunisians now, and they realize that their success in the runoff election depends on assuaging those fears.
Grant Rumley is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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