The Two Wisemen of Tunisia's Transition - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Two Wisemen of Tunisia's Transition

The Two Wisemen of Tunisia's Transition

By Emily Cadei



Of all the countries that chased out dictators during the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the last one standing that could become democratic, making it an important beacon for the region and the world.

By Emily Cadei

A 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor’s suicidal act of defiance sparked the 2011 protests that toppled dictators across North Africa and the Middle East. And that spark was picked up by technologically savvy 20-somethings, who fanned the flames of revolution in places like Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. 

But as Tunisians prepare to go to the polls this fall, the political players fighting to lead this cradle of the Arab Spring — and the one country that has a shot at a real democratic transition — have a distinctly old-school cast. Specifically, they’re old.

Why? Because while the uprising that expelled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali opened up the political playing field to a whole new cast of characters, decades of political repression meant that too few were able to develop the experience or widespread appeal necessary to emerge as national leaders. And it certainly didn’t help that Islamist fundamentalists assassinated two of Tunisia’s most popular secular political leaders, Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, in 2013.

The results will be felt far beyond the 11 million citizens of this North African country…

Even though the country boasts one of the Arab world’s most liberal and cosmopolitan societies — where women are as likely to be out and about in jeans and a ponytail as they are in traditional Muslim garb, and European sunbathers dot the beaches — regional experts say Tunisians are betraying their patriarchal tendencies by gravitating toward a handful of senior graybeards to lead them into the future. 

Though they’ve already conducted one set of elections since kicking Ben Ali to the curb, the polls this fall may be even more critical in setting the country’s political direction after a tumultous 2013. And the results will be felt far beyond the 11 million citizens of this North African country — Tunisia has become an important test case for whether liberal democracy really can flourish in the Muslim world. Western leaders know this, and the World Bank, the United States and others have announced a combined $2 billion in aid in the past month to help keep the country’s economy afloat.

Beji pointing with a Tunisian flag behind him

Tunisian former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi delivers his speech to launch his ‘call of Tunisia’

Election dates have not yet been set, and there is plenty of jockeying taking place within each of the major parties. But no matter how the field of candidates shakes out, these two men are certain to be major players in any election outcome. OZY takes a look at who they are and what they stand for…

Beji Caid Essebsi

This octogenarian statesman is a throwback to a different time in Tunisia, when the country first gained independence from colonial ruler France and was experiencing the first heady years of self-rule. A Paris-educated lawyer, Essebsi got his start as an aide to independence leader Habib Bourguiba — the father of modern-day Tunisia — in the 1950s, and went on to become a leading government official during Bourguiba’s 30-plus years of rule. Since Ben Ali’s departure, the bald and bespectacled Essebsi has sold himself as a steady hand at a time of immense upheaval in this small Mediterranean country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, serving a short stint as the transitional prime minister until the country could hold elections in late 2011.

Wily and pragmatic but also a bit creaky at 87, Essebsi has been able to use his strong public standing and forceful personality to unite Tunisia’s fragmented secular wing — which represents the majority of Tunisian voters but has limited political infrastructure — under a coalition called Nida Tounes, or “Tunisia’s Call.” 

”He really is the figure who is holding the umbrella party together,” says Hardin Lang, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.

Despite his advanced age, Essebsi has indicated he wants to run for president, a post that has expanded powers under the new constitution adopted in February, with an aim toward stabilizing the country’s economy.

”There is no Arab Spring — only the start of a Tunisian Spring,” he told the Washington Post in December. ”For it to become [an] Arab Spring, it needs to succeed in Tunisia. We have an educated population; we have liberated women. We have a large middle class. The only thing that remains [to be done] is sufficient economic development.”

Rached Ghannouchi

The leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s powerful moderate Islamist party, has been hailed by some in the West as a sort of Arab Nelson Mandela for his willingness to broker a deal that brought the government back from the brink of collapse last December — and kept Tunisia’s democratic aspirations on track.

”We are not angels. We would like to have power. But we fervently believe that a democratic constitution is more important for Tunisia than Ennahda retaining power,” Ghannouchi said in a speech in Washington, D.C., in February. 

With his bushy beard and eyebrows, and eyes that look like they’re smiling even when he’s serious, he strikes a sort of grandfatherly figure. But the 72-year-old from the nation’s desert south remains an extremely polarizing figure back home, where he is anathema to much of the secular majority.

That’s because they believe that Ghannouchi’s moderate rhetoric masks an underlying aim to establish Shariah law in Tunisia. And they blame Ghannouchi and his party, which won control of parliament in the country’s first free election, for not cracking down on the fundamentalist groups that killed Brahmi and Belaid. Hard-liners in his own party, on the other hand, have criticized him for yielding too much to the liberals in the fall negotiations.

A philosopher by education, Ghannouchi is one of the intellectual forefathers of Ennahda, which he helped form in the early 1980s. For that, he was twice thrown in jail under Ben Ali before fleeing to Europe in 1987, living there in exile until the 2011 revolution.

While ”still clearly the north star of the movement,” as Lang puts it, Ghannouchi has ruled out a run for president this fall, and there are questions about whether Ennahda will even field a presidential candidate or throw its weight behind a like-minded party. As the best organized party in Tunisian politics (akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), however, Ennahda has a good shot at forming the next parliamentary government, according to regional experts. But Ghannouchi has repeatedly said that they would want to form a coalition government

In any of these scenarios, he would no doubt play the role of power broker and kingmaker. 

For the foreseeable future, then, it looks like Tunisia will remain a country for old men.

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