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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Tunisia: The Blossoming of a Pluralistic Society?

Filed under: The Middle East

Nine months after the popular revolution that put an end to the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, Tunisians voted for the first time in what appear to be free and fair elections, and the voter turnout was surprisingly high.

The importance of elections in Tunisia is not only which party won the majority for the Constituent Assembly, but the real significance is the participation of almost 90 percent of voters in the election process, and as a result the emergence of a new political landscape that characterizes the Tunisian political scene.

In the elections, political parties had to contest 217 seats for the Constituent Assembly in 33 districts. The names on each list were required to alternate between men and women. However, many parties did not place female candidates at the top of their candidate lists.

There were a total of 11,686 candidates on 1,517 lists: 828 running with political parties, 655 running as independents, and 34 running with party coalitions. Each governorate elected between four and ten representatives. The total number of parties contesting the election was about 100.

Tunisian expatriates elected their representatives on 20–22 October 2011. In the six national districts (18 seats) – Al Nahda (the Islamist Renaissance party) gained 9 seats, CPR (Congress for the Republic) won 4, Ettakatol (The Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) won 3 seats, the Ettajdid (Renewal) movement won 1, and Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition for Justice and Development) won 1.

The final results were published on 28 October for the composition of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly which will draft the constitution:

  • As expected, Al Nahda, the Islamist party, won 41 percent (90 seats), including 42 of the 49 women elected to the Constituent Assembly.
  • 34 percent (73 seats) went to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP-The Progressive Democratic Party, Ettajdid)
  • 9 percent (19 seats) went to the Popular Petition led by London-based millionaire and Arab satellite TV station owner Al Hashemi Al Hamedy. The party had won 28 seats, but due to financial irregularities lost 9 seats, including in the Sidi Bouzid area, where many of the votes were “bought” by the party.
  • 4 percent (9 seats) went to parties aligned with Ben Ali’s regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara).

The Constituent Assembly will have a one-year mandate to draft a new constitution for Tunisia. The original constitution from 1959 heavily favors the president. The fact that 49 women are now part of the body-politic is important in itself. Tunisia’s women already enjoy greater liberty, equality, and protection than those in other Arab states. The country has legalized abortion, banned polygamy, granted equal divorce rights, and a enacted a legal code explicitly outlawing spousal rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment.

Moreover, the Assembly is expected to appoint or elect a new president who in turn will form the transitional government of the country for the duration of its term. Once the draft constitution is submitted to a popular vote for acceptance, elections to the Assembly will choose a president who will form the next Tunisian government.

The leader of the Al Nahda party made it very clear that since this party was the big winner in these elections, it ought to head the transitional government, and for that purpose, party leader Rached Ghannouchi designated his second-in-command, former journalist Hamadi Jebali, for that post.

Ghannouchi reiterated that he would not be a candidate for the post of transitional president, but declared that this position should be filled by a person who had fought against the Ben Ali regime. The names mentioned today in Tunisian political circles include Mustafa Ben Jaabar, head of the leftist party Al Takkatol; Moncef Marzouki, head of the leftist nationalist CPR; and Ahmed Mestiri, the historical opponent of former president Habib Bourghiba.

Ghannouchi’s world view was influenced by the writings of Muslim Brotherhood theorists like Sayyed Qutb.1 His influence in North Africa went beyond the borders of Tunisia; in the 1990s he helped draft the platform of the Algerian FIS (Front Islamique du Salut). In 1991, he attended Hassan Turabi’s Islamist Conferences in Sudan which brought together members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Afghan mujahideen.2

Perhaps because of his background, Ghannouchi also took care to calm Tunisians who did not vote for him, including those who called him a “terrorist” on his way to the polling station. Ghannouchi declared that his intention was to establish a secular, pluralistic society, to respect personal liberties, including women’s rights, and repeated forcefully that Tunisia remained committed to all its international obligations, treaties, and agreements. There was no intention for Tunisia to change its policies regarding foreign tourism when this sector represents 10 percent of the country’s internal revenue (tourism created revenue of 780 million euros for the period between January and September 2011, almost 40 percent less than the same period a year earlier). In one of numerous interviews, he promised to preserve “historical friendly relations with the U.S.,” to strengthen relations with “our brothers” Libya and Algeria, and to preserve Tunisia’s openness towards Europe.

The results of the elections in Tunisia have created a new situation. Even though the Islamists have won a plurality of the seats (over 40 percent), still, nearly 60 percent of the vote went to mostly secular groups that heavily rely on leftist and socialist ideologies. Al Nahda has no other choice but to compromise and form a coalition government that relies on a fair distribution of portfolios and an accepted political agenda in order to survive as a ruling party. Moreover, the number of parties elected and the sizeable number of independents reflect a splintered electorate, possibly turning Tunisia into a quasi-Italian model of democracy that is prone to instability. Two political forces share the future of Tunisia’s transition. It is false and fallacious to think that the future is solely in the hands of Al Nahda. Bearing in mind that leftist and liberal parties also represent almost 40 percent of the seats, Tunisia’s transition could be solid and sustainable and possibly closer to the Turkish model rather than the Italian one.

Indeed, Tunisians champion syncretism – the combining of different beliefs, and this is the crux of Tunisia’s political culture. Tunisians do not wish to ditch their Arab and Islamic heritage. Nor do they wish to detach from the brighter spots of reformist politics in their history. French and European input into the mix of Tunisian culture is now deep-rooted and appreciated.

Dr. Amor Boubakri, professor of law at the University of Sousse, eloquently summarized the situation by saying that Tunisians have realized what was expected of them for making the Arab Spring’s first election a resounding success. For him, this is the most important election in the history of Tunisia. This election inaugurates democratic transition, pluralism, power-sharing, organized opposition, and gender inclusiveness as never before.

It remains to be seen whether the Tunisian example will serve as an inspiration to its neighbors.

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1. Azzam Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 20-29.

2. Roland Jacquard, In the Name of Osama Bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the Bin Laden Brotherhood (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 110. See also Martin Kramer, “Islam in the New World Order,” in Ami Ayalon (ed.), Middle East Contemporary Survey, Volume XV, 1991 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), pp. 182-183.