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Friday 14 October 2011

Ominous' Anxiety – Tunisia

Ominous' Anxiety – Tunisia

Westerners and Tunisians alike are all fired up over who might come out well in the country's 23 October election.

The Washington Post has an article
on the anxiety of the PDP and other secular parties over the ban on campaign ads in Tunisia and how the ban has hindered their ability to reach beyond their core urban and semi-elite demographic, and how they have tried to cope. The big fear is that an-Nahdah, Tunisia's dominant Islamist party, having launched an able grassroots campaign and has used religious institutions and infrastructure to spread its message, will be the main (if not only) beneficiary the ban. In short, the can be read as an anticipation of a strong showing by an-Nahdah (as most of observers have for some time) and the ongoing relative weakness of `secular' parties of the center left, left all the way through to the right wing. Around half of Tunisians remain `undecided' as to how they plan to vote in the country's upcoming election for a constituent assembly. The article suggests the ban on campaign ads might have something to do with this and it probably does. It is a good illustration of the mutual suspicion between the parties in the new Tunisia and likely to bigger systemic challenges the country is facing in reorganizing itself.

Sarah Mersch, in Qantara, has a more in depth take on the ban and the overall climate:

Over 100 parties have been registered since the overthrow of the previous regime on 14th January, and around 1,700 electoral lists are standing in the 33 constituencies.

Campaigning has been going on since the beginning of October – under strict rules: each candidate can present his programme in a three-minute television spot, and each list presents its candidates in carefully marked, numbered squares on the walls of houses.

There are no big posters or fancy TV spots, and the press has not been allowed to interview the candidates since the start of the campaign. Every party and every list should have the same chance to help build the new democratic Tunisia, without any distinctions due to their access to the media or their level of financial support.

All the same, many of the squares on the house walls are empty, since the smallest parties don't even have the money to buy the paper to print their lists on or the supporters to stick them up.

In the centre of Tunis, Amin is standing in front of a row of black squares, numbered from 1 to 79. That's the number of lists standing in his constituency, Tunis 1. He's a 24-year-old mathematics student, and in two weeks he'll be voting for the first time in his life. But he still doesn't know who to vote for.

"If I can't decide," says Amin with a shrug, "I guess I'll vote for Ennahdha." He doesn't actually have much sympathy with the moderate Islamist party, "but at least they're all honest: they were all in prison until the revolution. The other parties are full of former members of the RCD."

From the Post`s standpoint this sounds `ominous' indeed. Things are more complicated, though, and the `danger' might be less in an an-Nahdah triumph than in a overwrought reaction to their victory. And, as Mersch writes, the self-perception and behavior of the left-wing and secular parties themselves may have as much to do with their relatively shoddy showing as an-Nahdah's competence in campaigning or the strength of its message.

No-one doubts that the Islamists will end up as the strongest group. Around a quarter of the seven million voters said in recent surveys that they'll vote for Ennahda (Uprising). The two liberal-left parties, the PDP (Democratic Progress Party) and Etakatol (Democratic Forum for Work and Freedom) each get around 15 percent. The third of the established opposition parties from the time of Ben Ali, Ettajdid (Renewal) has joined with four other liberal-left parties to form an alliance, Al Qotb (Democratic Modern Pole).

Then there are many other smaller parties; currently there are altogether some 40 left-wing liberal parties in Tunisia. Many of them have very similar programmes, but, aside from Al Qotb, each of them is standing on its own.

According to the blogger and journalist Haythem El Mekki, "These splits between the parties are unfortunate, since the Left is historically strong and ought to be the most powerful force. But everyone wants to do his own thing." The best example of that is the PDP. "The party is completely caught up in the personality cult of its chairman, Nejib Chebbi, and refuses to join any coalition."

[. . .]

Ben Sedrine fears that, after the election, Tunisia could suffer an "Algerian scenario," with a covert military dictatorship. "I'm worried about the counterrevolution," she says. "Perhaps these forces will try to attack the polling stations on election day itself, in order to stop people from voting, so that insecurity will lead many to stay at home."

Both El Mekki and Ben Sedrine agree that the forces of the old regime are a bigger problem than the Islamists. As El Mekki says, "The problem isn't Ennahda, but the hysterical reaction provoked by the party." At least on paper, Ennahda presents itself as moderate; it even says that the existing Tunisian law which guarantees wide-ranging equality for women is something worth preserving.

This polarization should be more worrying than the popularity of an-Nahdah itself. There's more to the story, though. Eileen Byrne, friend of the blog, has a fine piece in the Financial Times on the election.
She notes that the communist PCOT has taken to calling itself the Revolutionary Alternative (al-Badil, which is also the name of its newspaper and website) and is even fielding a candidate with a headscarf (the Algerian Workers Party also does this). Some of the left wing parties have moderated their tone on religion in recent months, fearing that their secularism might scare off religious voters who might otherwise vote for them. An-Nahdah has not been alone in trying to reshape its image adjust to the new context. They are likely to benefit the most from having so, though.

This blogger will make no predictions on Tunisia and at this stage has nothing to add beyond the obvious and a few posts on communiques and lists from one or two of the leftist parties, following interests noted on this blog earlier this year, which will come in the next few days.

To complain, not about Mersch's report, but about the Post`s. One finds the focus on `secular' versus `Islamist/religious' politics somewhat frustrating: aside from this line of division what else do Tunisians think about? Sympathy — passive or active — for a party like an-Nahdah and the wide popularity of left-wing as opposed to economically right-wing parties in Tunisia looks speaks to a desire for a kind of moral economy which journalists ought to investigate more aggressively. What do people know about an-Nahdah's economic program? What is an-Nahdah's economic program as compared with the PDP's or Attajdid or the other parties? Are there policy differences beyond women's issues or what the country would `look like' on the sliding scale between `Turkey or Iran or Afghanistan'? Whose responsibility do the parties believe it is to provide social or welfare services? What does an-Nahdah's grassroots campaign look like? Political science students often study campaign tactics; these are obviously important in all competitive elections. How are the other parties' campaigns structured beyond posters and ads? What sort of people show up to support them? All basic questions one struggles find answers on Tunisia's campaigns; there is too much focus on the parties themselves, not enough on their followers. This will hopefully change as more and more journalists and writers make their way to Tunisia to cover the election and the ones already there get more attention. Of course Tunisia will suffer from short word counts and it lower ranking in English-speakers' list of priorities. This is generally changing, though. Al Jazeera English has a good list summarizing the major parties here.


October 10, 2011 9:01 pm
Secular concerns grow ahead of Tunisia poll
By Eileen Byrne in Tunis

Tunisia's Communist Workers' party has rebranded itself. Gone is the reference to communism. The party has been renamed Revolutionary Alternative and, perhaps more surprising, a woman with a Muslim headscarf has been added to its list of candidates in the town of Kasserine.

Ahead of the first democratic election on October 23, even the communists are keen to show that they count observant Muslims among their candidates. The reasoning is simple. Opinion polls show that the moderately Islamist Nahda party is likely to lead the field in the vote for a constituent assembly that will draft a democratic constitution.

The poll will be the first in the political transitions under way in the Middle East and north Africa. Campaign events organised by Nahda begin with a prayer and have a buzz lacking at other parties' rallies. In a community hall in Hay Taddaamun, a working-class Tunis suburb, women outnumbered men in the audience. Party bandanas with Nahda slogans were distributed to the little girls to wear over most of their hair, while party members performed comic sketches mocking the former regime.

The party, decimated in the 1990s by Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the former president who posed as the defender of secularism, has regrouped since the regime was ousted in January.

Opinion polls suggest it could emerge as the biggest party in the elections, although it is still likely to be well short of a majority. Its rapid re-emergence has alarmed secular sections of society and sent liberal parties scrambling for ways to compete with the Islamist message in an effort to win over elusive younger voters. Its influence is also apparent in the pledge from many parties to "defend Tunisia's Arab and Islamic identity".

Nahda has been keen to show that it does not discriminate against women who choose not to wear the veil, in a country where women have historically enjoyed more rights than elsewhere in the Arab world. It has persuaded an unveiled trade unionist, Souad Abderrahim, to lead its candidates in one of the Tunis constituencies.

Its campaign leaflet also includes a pledge to defend women's right to dress as they please, which works both ways. Many of its hijab-wearing supporters say they are enjoying a freedom denied under the former regime, when wearing a headscarf could mean exclusion from employment.

Nahda is not without critics. Since the fall of the regime, scores of political parties have sprung up, but only a handful – some of them old, such as Ettakatol or the centrist Democratic Progressive party, and some new, such as the middle-class technocrats of Afek Tounes – are being taken seriously. Controversially, several newly created parties are seeking to attract former ruling RCD party members, and these are emerging as the harshest critics of Nahda.

Tensions between Islamists and liberals took a violent turn at the weekend after clashes between police and protesters angry at the continued ban on the wearing of the niqab, the full face veil, at universities. Other protests broke out against a television channel's airing of Persepolis, a film based on an Iranian novel about growing up under Muslim rule, which Islamists see as denigrating to Islam. Nahda condemned the protest.

Despite the apparent popularity of Nahda, however, polls suggest that up to 44 per cent of the electorate remains undecided. This is a possible reflection of the frustrations of Tunisians, particularly the youth who led the revolution, at the lack of improvement in their daily lives. Many people say they are disenchanted with political parties. This could benefit the 587 independent candidates seeking election to the 217-seat assembly.

Still, when the centrist Progressive Democratic party and a smaller newcomer, the Free Democratic Union, bused in young men from the provinces for rallies at Tunis's Qubba stadium, some members of the audience were happy to tell reporters outside the stadium that their loyalties in fact lay with Nahda.

"I want Nahda to do the impossible, to try the maximum, to provide jobs," one young man from Kasserine said emphatically. 


Posted at 07:29 AM ET, 10/13/2011
An ominous message from Tunisia
By Joby Warrick

Many Tunisians were delighted last month when the interim government banned political ads in the run-up to historic elections on Oct. 23. But now one of the country’s leading parties is warning that the curb on advertising is swaying the election in favor of Islamists.

American officials have been cautiously optimistic about Tunisia’s chances of transitioning to democracy, and the country’s interim leaders have sought to allay U.S. fears about Islamist rule.

But the centrist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) says the ban has effectively muted proponents of liberal democracy in Tunisia while giving an edge to al-Nahda, the leading Islamist party, which polls show is now likely to capture the largest bloc of votes.

Over the weekend, PDP supporters launched an effort to circumvent the ban, placing a series of video advertisements on the Arabic-language cable news network al-Jazeera as well as on social networking sites. The ads, which do not advocate a particular party or candidate, warn of a grim future for Tunisia if Islamists take charge of the government.

The ad series, dubbed “The Day After,” features a dramatic portrayals of ordinary Tunisians struggling to adjust to life in a future Islamist-led Tunisia where political rights are curbed and businesses suffer from declining tourism. One of the actors portrays a professional woman who laments her diminished status and loss of her job.

“After they took power, they changed the laws. They decided that in the workplace, men would be favored over women,” the actress says. “I am a prisoner in my house.”

In an interview, PDP founder Ahmed Najib Chebbi complained that his party has struggled to find ways to communicate with voters, while the Islamists use the mosque as well as their own, well-established political and social networks.

“They have a lot of money, distribute gifts, are well-organized and use religion to achieve their goals,” Chebbi said. Meanwhile, for secular parties, “these restrictions prevent us from communicating with our citizens, of whom 50 percent are still undecided.”

Recent opinion polls show that roughly a quarter of committed voters prefer the Islamists, while the PDP is favored by between 10 percent and 14 percent, with the rest divided among nearly 80 smaller parties and hundreds of independent candidates. The elections scheduled for Oct. 23 will appoint 217 Tunisians to a Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution and appoint a government to succeed that of ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The ban on political advertising was spurred in part by concerns over massive ad purchases by Tunisian energy tycoon Slim Riahi in support of his party, the Free Patriotic Union. But the curbs have effectively silenced advocates of secular democracy by depriving them of a means of connecting with voters.

Al-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has sought to ease Tunisians’ fears about Islamist control, outlining a vision for a modern, pluralistic society that more resembles Turkey than Iran or Afghanistan. “We are against the imposition of the head scarf in the name of Islam,” he told al-Jazeera in a recent interview.

Chebbi, who has served as regional development minister under the interim government, scoffed at Ghannouchi’s assurances and warned that it’s not just Tunisia that stands to lose if Islamists gain power.

“Their victory here not only threatens personal liberties, but will prevent the integration of Tunisia into the world economy and destroy jobs,” he said

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