Political puzzle for some Tunisians as vote nears

AFP , Wednesday 19 Oct 2011

After decades of economic coddling coupled with political repression under the strongman rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, many are clueless about who to vote for in historic elections Sunday for the drafters of a new constitution

Tunisian men cast fake ballots at a polling station during a simulation vote, one week before the October 23 Constituent Assembly elections, in Tunis October (Photo: Reuters)

For the town of Sousse, known in tourist guides as "The pearl of the Tunisian Sahel", the revolution that toppled a dictator and sparked the Arab Spring arrived without warning and left its inhabitants perplexed.

"The revolution came by stealth. Before, it was Ben Ali 99.9 per cent here, even the dead voted. "Today, to tell you the truth, we are a bit lost," said Mohamed Ben Gadha, a 62-year-old pensioner seated at a corner cafe with four old friends.

 Years of political inertia followed by a sudden profusion of political parties and independent candidates' lists, as well as fear of the unknown, has left voters baffled. "The candidates all promise the same thing, but there is no strong leader," said Gadha.

On a big street in the town centre, passers-by hesitate before 57 candidates' lists glued to a wall. Many leave shaking their heads, as if stunned.

Islamist party Ennahda, which pollsters say is the favourite to win the biggest bloc of votes in Sunday's polls, has a lot at stake in this region, which gave post-independence Tunisia its first two presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The big, blue election banners of the party, whose deputy leader Hammadi Jebali also hails from the region, have pride of place on many street corners.

Though they themselves have not made their minds up yet, Gadha and his friends are convinced that Ennahda will achieve a big score, especially among "the poorest, the illiterate". But not Mohamed Sghrairi, a 57-year-old who looks much older as he collects empty bottles to sell for 300 millimes (0.15 euro cents) per kilogramme.

"Ennahda and the others, I don't give a damn," he said.

"They have never done anything for us."

Sousse shopowners and workers say they want a "more just" Tunisia for their children. Cadres and students await "a profound change in mentality" but also economic and political stability.

Few have an opinion on which party is best positioned to achieve this.

Far from the effervescence of Tunis 150 kilometres (93 miles) to the north, Sousse is keen not to lose the advantages it has enjoyed. It had benefited from big investments over the years, with millions spent recently on expanding its port. Its inner city has been classified a UNESCO heritage site, and its beaches attract thousands of tourists every year.

Residents took to the streets when police opened fire on crowds in nearby inland villages such as Thala and Kasserine on January 8. But even during the revolution, olive oil, textiles and salt continued leaving Sousse on ships headed for Europe.

In the docks, the activity "did not even stop on January 14", the day Ben Ali and his family fled for Saudi Arabia, said Lotfi Sassi, deputy port director. "Business slowed by about 20 percent during the first three months of 2011, but only because the boats were no longer arriving from France and Italy."

At the city's engineering school, students mull around discussing the "experience of the revolution". Many say they have registered to vote, but still don't know for whom. "Ennahda, never in my life. What, so they can send us (women) back home?" said Ahlam, a female student.

Still undecided, she expresses admiration for Kamel Morjane, a former Ben Ali minister who has launched his own party. "Him? He benefited from the system to build a villa in Carthage (near Tunis)," interjected Hedi, lamenting that the independent candidates are unknowns apart from a former Sousse football trainer whose candidacy he describes as "a joke".

"And the others take us for idiots. Ennahda distributes sheep for Eid (a Muslim holiday marking the end of the Ramadan fasting period) and the PDP (centre-left Progressive Democratic Party) hands out sandwiches at its meetings."

At the faculty of arts, a violent attack beginning October by a group of Salafists protesting the institution's refusal of a female student for wearing the face-covering niqab, has left its mark.

Many approached by AFP say they were not sure of anything except: "Ennahda, no!"

"We are afraid. Nobody should be able to impose things on others," explained Abire Derbili, 19, her oval face framed by a veil.

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