Six critical days in Tunisia's history

Karem Yehia in Tunisia, Tuesday 6 Jan 2015

Beset by crises since its 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia only just scrapped through its latest conjuncture, over presidential elections won by a figure some see as old regime

Beji Caid Essebsi, puts his hand on the Quran to be sworn in as new Tunisian President during a ceremony at the National Assembly in Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Tunisia has lived a series of political crises since the revolution of 14 January  2011. Some of these crises appeared out in the open while others occurred far from the propaganda and the spotlight.

For almost six days the country was going to slip into chaos, since the day of voting in the presidential elections run-off between Beiji Caid Essebsi and Interim President Moncef Marzouki, and until powers were transferred to newly elected President Essebsi this Wednesday.

On 21 December, monitors at polling stations stated that turnout in the presidential elections would be lower than that in parliamentary elections, which took place less than two months earlier, and indeed this was proven later that day.

Two phenomena were exciting: first, that most of the youth polling stations were almost empty. Youth form 60 percent of Tunisian society. Estimates said that 75 percent of the youth didn't vote. The second phenomenon was that turnout among the middle classes and in upscale areas was far in above that from unprivlidged areas, with most poor areas voters having voted for Marzouki. The latter had provoked the upper classes, stating that he had "a problem with the Tunisian bourgeoisie."

By the middle of voting day, the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections – ISIE), Shafiq Sorsar, was worried of the "blank paper" phenomenon. While Sorsar said that nameless ballots wouldn't affect the final candidate percentages, the number would be something political experts would have to explain.

Less than an hour before the close of polling, news spread in the media that a pro-Marzouki protest marched from Al-Karm district heading to the presidential palace in Carthage. Police forces were able to confront the protest and disperse it.  

Tension also rose when reporters spread news that more protests erupted south Tunisia after Essebsi's campaign officer announced him as winning.  

At 6:00pm, the ex-presidential spokesman held a press conference to warn against any early announcement of the results. He added that the gap between the two rivals was not big, but only a few thousand votes.

An hour and half later, three opinion polling institutions declared, according to surveys they made, that Essebsi had a seven to 10 point lead on his rival.

At Essebsi's campaign headquarters in Al-Buhayra district, celebrations started once polling stations closed. Essebsi himself went out with his supporters and celebrated with them. Thousands of people were launching fireworks and welcoming the new president and saying, "Goodbye, Marzouki!"

On the other side, Marzouki was still clinging to hope. He moved to his campaign headquarters in Ariana governorate and gave a speech to a few hundred of his supporters. Those supporters looked somewhat poorer than Essebsi's supporters and most of the women were wearing the hijab (head veil). One of the attendees said he was not satisfied with Marzouki's performance in power in the last two years, but still supports him because Essebsi is an old regime symbol.

Marzouki told his supporters in the speech that, "Tunisia won, because it ended the electoral farce." He claimed there were facts to prove his victory. He also called on his supporters to avoid violence.

The Algerian Al-Khabar newspaper — specialised in Tunisian affairs — interviewed Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi in the headquarters of the Islamist party on the next Monday. Othman Lahyani, the journalist who conducted the interview, told Ahram Online that he was astonished as Ghannouchi had "changed his previous statements 180 degrees." This shift in discourse came in the Islamist leader's views about Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes Party.

"The sheikh is now praising them, and mocking the revolution at a time when the revolution has already ended," said Lahyani.

During the same day, an aide to Marzouki told Ahram Online that "Ennahda leaders betrayed the transitional president, though being former allies."

It was no surprise to find the title "Essebsi and Ghannouchi to push for national unity government" on an article published on the front page of Al-Fajr, Ennahda's newspaper. For Tunisia's most popular newspaper, Al-Sharouk, its main story was titled "Ennahda and Marzouki: The temporary marriage is over."

Tunisia's Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE) officially announced Essebsi as the winner on 22 December. Marzouki congratulated Essebsi for his victory, media outlets reported in the evening.  

In a statement, Marzouki praised the success of the elections and the end of the transitional path, calling for renouncing violence and maintaining internal peace. But reporters received information about protests in the south, which developed to attacks against the police and Nidaa Tounes's headquarters.

Media outlets ignored this piece of news, which likely reflected tacit agreement on imposing a blackout. Marking the most important development in the protests, demonstrators raised slogans against the supporters of Habib Bourguiba (founder of the state) and Essebsi as the interior minister of Bourguiba's period of rule. They accused Essebsi and the Bourguibians of killing Saleh bin Youssef, an independence era leading figure who was known for his strong opposition to the French occupation of Tunisia.

Carrying Arab nationalist and Nasserist orientations, Bin Youssef had severely clashed with Bourguiba over ways of dealing with the independence issue. He was assassinated in 1962 in Germany, and some speculate that Bourguiba ordered his killing. Southern areas of Tunisia, where Bin Youssef was born, suffered marginalisation and an absence of economic growth during the eras of Bourguiba and his successor, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. This was not the case in other parts of the North African country.

Despite his earlier acceptance of the electoral outcome, Marzouki claimed "a conspiracy against the revolution" and violations during the voting process as he spoke from the headquarters of his campaign. His backers, who gathered to hear his speech on that day, complained about irregularities, including problems with voter registration lists and voting by the names of dead people.

Conversely, international elections monitoring organisatIons asserted that the electoral process was fair and transparent. A European diplomatic source, who preferred to remain anonymous, expressed anger over Marzouki's statement and believed it could increase tensions in the south. Many of Tunisia's newspapers slammed his comments.

Adnan Manser, head of Marzouki's presidential campaign, said in interview that Marzouki would not seek to lead the opposition. Another aide to Marzouki showed Ahram Online a message on his cell phone from US Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Wallace. In the message, Wallace called on Marzouki to renew his recognition of the results, which he had affirmed already in a brief statement from Carthage Palace.

By Thursday, the situation in the south became more calm. Public attention was directed to Nidaa Tounes's headquarters amid an important meeting for the selection of a new party leader. No decision was reached, but leaks revealed divisions over the choice of both the Nidaa Tounes leader and head of government. Whether the new premier will be a figure from Nidaa Tounes or not (Essebsi prefers the latter, to avoid charges of controlling all governing institutions) remains unresolved. The inclusion of Ennahda in the government is also undecided until now. Essebsi wants the Islamist group to join, unlike other elements of Nidaa Tounes, such as leftists and former members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally.

Last Friday, in a related development, the degree of control of Marzouki at the presidential palace was questioned. The president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, Sihem Ben Sedrine, went to the presidential palace with six trucks to take away the presidential archives. But presidential security personnel prevented her from performing her mission. Informed sources told Ahram Online that the actions of the security personnel contradicted the wishes of Marzouki, who had not left the palace yet. The commission, which started its work in December, is entitled to examine all sources of grievance from 1956-2011. Ben Sederine and her team are allowed access to all documents related to this work.

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