Tunisia embarks on the first elections of the Arab Spring: Change and trepidation

Karem Yehia in Tunis, Sunday 23 Oct 2011

In the Tunisian capital, hours before polls open at 7am on Sunday, 23 October, for the first elections in the Arab Spring, everything seems different, but fears remain

Polls open in Tunisia's first post-revolution elections (Photo: AFP)

Until the early hours people are intensely discussing, in sidewalk cafes, party, independent and coalition election lists. Most of them have never cast a ballot in any general elections, including the old men who lived during the long rule of former President Al-Habib Borqeba (31 years until 1987).

Taxi drivers are turning the dial of their radios to local news stations covering what observers describe as the most important elections in the history of the country since its independence in 1956, following 23 years of rule under deposed president Zein Abidine Ben Ali. The radio stations themselves are a media feature unprecedented in Tunisia.

But anxiety abounds. The headlines of Friday and Saturday's newspapers, hours before the elections, carry images of a bloodied Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, his death crowding out news about elections in neighbouring Tunisia. The majority of Tunisians whom I talked to on the street are very troubled by how Gaddafi died. For months they were leery about him clinging to power and the lengthy civil war that unfolded with his opponents, worried about the repercussions of the “Libyan crisis” on their economy and even the future of the 14 January Revolution, describing Gaddafi as an enemy of their revolution.

The cover story of this week’s Tunisian edition of the French Jeune Afrique magazine stands out, carrying the shocking headline "Leap into the unknown" against a background of photographs of the leader of the Islamist Al-Nahda Movement Party, Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, Prime Minister Al-Baji Qaed Al-Sebesi (who has Borqeba tendencies and heritage) and the Army Chief of Staff General Rashed Bin Ammar. A young man standing next to me points out that these are three strongest men in Tunisia right now. When I ask him about a smaller picture of an unknown girl crammed between the other three, he said: “This is the street that will cast its votes, the majority of which does not know whom to vote for.”

Jeune Afrique is popular among the elite who prefer to read in French and are concerned that Al-Nahda Islamists will share power. Opinion polls predict that they will win the largest number of seats of the Constituent Assembly (219) that will be in charge of writing the constitution of the Second Republic within one year — possibly 20 to 30 per cent of seats. But several observers believe the image abroad that the average citizen supports Al-Nahda and the intellectual elite oppose it is incorrect and inaccurate, suggesting that a look outside the capital shows Tunisia as more diverse and that Al-Nahda is not the only forerunner in the election battle.

Despite the political rhetoric and election campaign of Al-Nahda leaders, led by Al-Ghanoushi, large sectors of intellectuals in the capital are suspicious of what they describe as “double talk” by the movement. “The double standard is not only about the huge disparity between the statements of the leadership in the media and the beliefs of the movement’s cadres and supporters,” explains Najat Al-Yaqoubi, a female lawyer who is running on an independent list in Manouba district, 10 kilometres outside the capital, “but includes conflicting statements by the leaders themselves regarding the civic nature of the state, the source of legislation and women’s rights.”

Bassam Al-Tareefi, the chairman of Manouba’s branch election committee, said in a telephone conversation: “The majority of violations during campaigning were committed by candidates on Al-Nahda’s list, especially for using mosques.” Although the movement vowed it would avoid using them to serve political purposes, a monitor of elections in the capital said that members of Al-Nahda and the dissolved Constitutional Party have used mosques in many states across the country. “The Ministry of Religious Affairs documented 800 violations of this kind, but at the last minute decided not to make them public,” revealed the monitor, who requested anonymity because of the nature of his work. The source added that most of these violations were aimed at the lists and candidates of groups on the Left, as well as the lists of liberal political parties that were born after the 14 January Revolution.

One of the unprecedented and novel features of the elections on 23 October is allowing foreign and local monitors to observe the entire electoral process. Late at night, Ibn Khaldoun movie theatre in the centre of Tunis was packed for the last meeting of the Monitors Coalition, the largest local monitoring network that includes 4,000 members across the nation. The Monitors Coalition will play a major role in observing the elections through 10,000 local monitors and 500 foreigners. Since the number of candidates is just over 11,000, it will be almost one monitor per candidate.

Most of the speeches at this meeting were optimistic about election day. Although many violations have been recorded over the past few days, the monitors believe these are minor and will not influence an unprecedented electoral process of this size. Concerns about vote buying in poor and impoverished areas resulted in the Supreme Committee for the Elections (SCE) — led by human rights activist Kamal Al-Jandoubi who returned after long years in exile — issuing instructions a few days ago banning cell phones inside voting booths, to prevent voters who receive bribes from taking photographs of their ballots.

Regarding the security situation, I received two contradictory messages in the past 12 hours. The first from a senior official in the SCE headquartered on Ibn Al-Jazzar Street advising me not to leave the capital on election day; the second from Naji Al-Arjoubi, a young monitor who just returned to Tunis after spending three weeks touring the country, stating that “there is nothing to worry about. Tunisians truly want a peaceful transition to democracy. The majority of Tunisians, 67 per cent, live in cities and are no longer bound by familial or clan loyalties that usually cause violence during elections in developing countries.”

Al-Arjoubi added: “Concerns about lack of security are exaggerated and propagated by loyalists to the former regime and Western media. In June, they raised the alarm about conducting high school exams outside the capital, but everything passed peacefully and there were no disruptions.”

A little later, Zobeir Mashhoudi, a senior figure in Al-Nahda who is close to its leader Al-Ghanoushi, denied reports in the world media about the dangers of violence and lax security during the elections. In a telephone conversation after midnight, on his way to attend the funeral of victims of a traffic accident in the deep South, Mashhoudi said: “The roads are safe, contrary to all rumours.”

Perhaps the last battle before election day was a war of words between Prime Minister Al-Sebesi and Al-Ghanoushi, when the former said his cabinet would stay in power until November until the new government is formed and he expects it to be a coalition government that will be difficult to form. The latter threatened to take to the streets if there is procrastination in transferring power, or any manipulation of the outcome of the elections. Immediately, some political forces accused Al-Nahda and its leader of propaganda terrorism on the eve of elections.

“The sheikh was misquoted by one of the Western news agencies,” explained Mashhouri. “He just wanted to express concern on the street and by the revolutionary youth about [El-Sebesi’s] statements, and because he appointed a new minister days before elections take place.”

There are also other concerns that are different from local and Western exaggerations. On the most famous and key street in the capital, Al-Habib Borqeba, I met a group of young Facebook females and males enthusiastically handing out lists of political parties and candidates in the elections that had served in the dissolved Constitutional Party, in violation of a decision by the SCE banning tens of thousands even on the level of branch offices in towns, villages and districts.

Even more troubling is the fact that Tunisia, which is known in the Arab world over the past 50 years for great advances in eradicating illiteracy, is entering the 2011 elections with a heavy load of 1.8 million illiterate citizens out of seven million eligible voters. The viability of their ballots is a source of concern in light of a decision by the SCE preventing assistants from entering ballot booths with illiterate voters, to help them with what has been described by monitors as a very complicated process.

“Naturally, voter turnout will be high,” asserted Mariam Dabi, a bold independent activist who wears the veil among the Facebook youth handing out the names of former Constitutional Party members on Al-Habib Borqeba Street. “The Constitutional Assembly will include a wide range of forces and currents. This is all new and good, but we are worried that the West will use us to export a false model of democracy to our Arab brethren. A model that is nothing more than continuing to be followers to the West with the Islamists sharing power.”

Another independent leftist activist, Hadd Al-Zein Amami, agrees, as she takes another drag on her cigarette at one cafe. Amami adds that the US has postponed aid to Tunisia’s decimated economy until the election results are out. “They will either deny us and put us under siege like [Hamas],” she predicts, “or they will help us like they do their strategic ally Turkey.”

There is no doubt that these elections are unlike anything Tunisia has ever seen, or even any Arab country has witnessed with few exceptions. The things that have changed in Tunisia are no doubt many, but there are still many reasons for trepidation.

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