Elation beamed from supporters of Tunisia’s secular Nidaa Tunis party just hours after polls closed Oct. 26, marking Tunisia’s second democratic elections after the Arab Spring. Nidaa Tunis is headed by the charismatic Beji Caid Essebsi and is an eclectic conglomerate of cadres from the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, big business, left-wing intellectuals and unionists. The party unseated Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that swept the 2011 legislative elections. For months, analysts and voters pitted Ennahda against Nidaa Tunis, painting a polarized political field. Religion against secularism appeared to be the name of Tunisia’s electoral game.
Yet the country’s political field is much more diverse than that. With 1,327 candidate lists vying for seats during the three week long campaign, streets were crowded with boisterous rallies and clamorous parades, representing a wide variety of reforms, programs and promises. Preliminary election results reflect Tunisia’s political diversity with a third of voters choosing between extreme leftists, determined capitalists and independents. When glancing beyond the capital of Tunis to the country’s economically challenged interior and south, a simplistic secularist over Islamist victory does injustice to the richness of Tunisia’s shrewd post-revolutionary political evolution.
In Gafsa, the phosphate-rich epicenter of southwest Tunisia, and the neighboring mining town of Redeyef, lofty debates about religion and secularism mean very little to residents. Unemployment in the area soars, and disgruntled residents complain of no improvements since the 2011 toppling of Ben Ali, blaming Ennahda’s governance as much as corrupt interests of the lingering old guard in Tunis. Life in the mining region differs remarkably from that of Tunisia’s capital, but to many residents and local leaders, Gafsa is where the Tunisian Revolution began. In 2008, two years before the Arab Spring, a six-month rebellion by unemployed minors, leftist activists and defected unionists in the mining region was violently crushed by Ben Ali’s security forces. The region was on fire as protesters took to the street every week, fundamentally shaking the regime. Candidates from the region, especially leftists, heavily lambast the post-revolutionary political elite for dismissing the region’s longstanding political tradition. In Redeyef, a town dotted with dilapidated buildings from the French colonial period and flimsy constructions of the 1960s and 1970s, unemployment has reached an estimated high of 40 percent. Most affected are educated youth who desperately seek entry into the phosphate industry. Phosphates extraction, production and trade constitute one third of Tunisia’s economy, yet the industry is heavily controlled by the Tunisian state, which has done little to reinvest in the region.
Though Ennahda swept the elections in the mining region in 2011, the area has always been a bastion for politics concerned with workers’ rights and economic equality. One of the region’s most celebrated local leaders, Adnen Hajii, the so-called Che Guevara of the south, led the 2008 rebellion and has now secured a seat in the 217-member parliament on an independent ticket. He ran along-side the Popular Front coalition, an eclectic mix of 12 parties and civil society organizations, inspired by mid-century intellectual Marxism, Leninism, Arab and Tunisian Nationalism, and European-style social democracy.
Bordered by Algeria to the west and the Sahara desert to the south, Redeyef has historically suffered from underdevelopment and mismanaged economic plans, yet its political vibrancy mirrors none other in Tunisia. Days before the Oct. 26 elections, residents were out in full force, braving the unbearably dry heat to welcome political celebrities. Leftist Hamma Hammami, the Popular Front’s charismatic leader and long-time opponent of Tunisia’s first and second presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, visited his loyal followers, many of whom participated in the 2008 rebellion. A recent visit by Slim Riahi, leader of the Free Patriotic Union party, businessman and president of Club African, a popular Tunisian soccer club, captured a surprising amount of support by coming in third, less so for his liberal economic affinities than his soccer profile. Original campaigns by both political factions garnered them well over 10 percent of parliamentary seats, one of the elections’ surprises.
Leftist tendencies in Tunisia have regained much of their former popular appeal following two political assassinations of leftist leaders – Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July 2013, respectively. The second assassination spiraled Tunisia into a political crisis and inspired a movement, Rahil (Get out), which called for the resignation of the Ennahda-led Troika government. Voters dissatisfied with both Ennahda’s performance and Nidaa Tunis’s program have been drawn to smaller parties, from leftists to those with clear liberal economic agendas. Discussing platforms with groups of leftists in the sparse offices of the Popular Front or Hajji’s party on election day, the mood was clear: Local economic needs trump all other ills.
In regions such as Gafsa, plans for economic equality, redistribution and a heavy regulatory state dominated platforms and public speeches. The Popular Front is first and foremost committed to democracy, principles of social justice and economic equality. But its members cringe when you call them leftists. They have a keen reading of politics: A retired philosophy teacher who taught at a local school in Redeyef clarifies that leftist militancy served a purpose before the Revolution, “it allowed us to unite and fight against Ben Ali and his cronies.” With a smile he says, “Today we have become democrats, we are pragmatic about Tunisia’s future.” The Popular Front, projected to have won 12 seats, wants to ensure a political balance between the leading factions in parliament. “The Popular Front is an example of a party that represents Tunisia’s most pressing needs and one that can function as a legitimate counter-power in parliament by placing a check on both Nidaa Tunis and Ennahda,” says Noaman Ben Ammar, a young, unemployed activist from Gafsa who participated in the 2008 Rebellion and is now a member of the Popular Front. Those who voted for leftists and other smaller parties are thrilled – not only have their economic woes found a voice in the assembly for the first time, but their decision to not vote “strategically” has paid off.
As stories abound about a strong victory of secularism versus Islamism, or the faulty perception that Tunisians are polarized on a religion-secularism dichotomy, those who voted for the smaller parties are content.They understand that in a nascent democracy, a wide variety of platforms with diverse promises are more valuable than a clustering of interests around one or two political factions. “I am a devout Muslim,” says a member of Hajji’s party from Redeyef, “but I will only vote for candidates who represent the real dire needs of my region. For us the only solution is a strong leftist voice in Tunis.” Painting Tunisia as split between religion and secularism cheapens the country’s extraordinary progress toward democratic pluralism.
The parliamentary elections showed that voters’ political inclinations stretched far beyond the ideological splits of religion versus secularism. Such labels have become fashionable means to make sense of Arab Spring countries, yet they don’t represent Tunisia’s fascinating political, if not democratic reality. For the country’s south, which has been plagued by economic ills since independence, there is hope. “For the first time,” says Ammar, “our needs are represented in the assembly.” The proliferation of political parties and extraordinary strength of civil society defining Tunisian politics following the 2011 Revolution show that Tunisia’s democracy is, indeed, in its making.
Laryssa Chomiak is a political scientist and director of the Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines in Tunis. She is finalizing her upcoming book on the politics of dissent under Ben Ali’s Tunisia and portions of her work have appeared as book chapters and journal articles in Middle East Law and Governance, The Journal of North African Studies, Portal 9 and Middle East Report.