It is rare for a president to leave an endearing impact on a nation despite being in office for a short period. But that was the case with late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi (1925-2019), whose recent death left a country that had crossed several political hurdles over this decade at a crossroads.
At one end of the equation are the modern and secular political powers that wish to keep the country’s foundations intact with the rules attributed by its founder former president Habib Bourguiba.
At the other end are the Islamists led by the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda Movement who are vying to complete their unfinished attempt at full power in the country.
Essebsi, who died of food poisoning according to his son’s statement to the Tunisian media, was the world’s oldest incumbent president. He represented the glue that bound the country together and prevented it from falling into civic strife, especially after the failure that tainted his predecessor the proclaimed “liberal” yet Islamist-leaning Moncef Marzouki.
Marzouki was merely a marionette in the hands of Ennahda. But Essebsi’s secular social reforms regarding equal rights for women and others irked the Islamists, including his open-minded outlook on gender equality in marriage and inheritance.
The Islamists felt that Essebsi was tearing down the layers of injustice in the name of religion that they had stacked up against women in Tunisia and other similar societies.
No wonder he was hated by terrorist-preaching clerics such as Wagdi Ghoneim and other Muslim Brotherhood members and affiliates across the world.
Tunisians are now braced for two sets of elections that will define the country’s future for years if not decades to come. The first is the snap presidential elections to be held on 15 September, and the second is the parliamentary elections to be held on 6 October.
Both elections are battlefields for secular, leftist, liberal and Islamist candidates to display their capabilities to rally Tunisians in their favour.
Despite the country being a semi-presidential system, the Tunisian presidential elections represent a challenge for all the parties due to the sensitivity of the position and the fact that the result will be a prelude of what to expect in the subsequent parliamentary elections.
The presidential elections in Tunisia feature a large number of candidates, with 98 putting their names forward and 26 being approved by the country’s Electoral Commission so far.
The main contenders appear to be former defence minister Abdel-Karim Zbidi, incumbent prime minister Youssef Chahed, businessman Nabil Karoui, Ennahda’s Abdel-Fattah Mourou, female candidate Abir Moussi and former president Marzouki.
Poll numbers issued by several pollsters indicate a tight race that will likely witness a second round between the frontrunners.
Luckily for nationalists and secularists in Tunisia, Zbidi appears to be a frontrunner in the elections so far, garnering more support and endorsements by the day including that of the son of late president Essebsi, Hafez Essebsi, who believes that Zbidi is the most eligible of all those putting themselves forward to continue his father’s legacy of the modernisation of the country.
Unlike most of the other candidates, Zbidi remains untainted by hidden or public ties to the Islamists or Ennahda, and he has made this clear on several occasions.
With a dedicated team of campaigners including political analyst Mondher Guefrachi and several others, Zbidi is leading the polls, according to Swiss-based pollster Stratege Consulting, by a small margin, and his campaign is gaining momentum as the decisive election day comes nearer.
However, Chahed’s campaign is also going strong, despite accusations that he has been misusing his powers by utilising state resources in a direct violation of the electoral laws. The same can be said of Islamist candidate Abdel-Fattah Mourou who is now the acting speaker of Tunisia’s parliament.
Mourou represents one of several options that the Islamists have in the upcoming elections. He is the first Muslim Brotherhood candidate ever for the presidency, and this is considered a major gamble for the Islamist Party, which has usually opted to act behind the scenes and exert control from there.
The second option is Marzouki, who is not begging for Islamist support due to his dwindling popularity but has always been the perfect candidate for the Islamists to control.
Chahed is another candidate with ties to Ennahda, and though he heads the newly formed Tahya Tunis Party, he has displayed a willingness to forge deals with the Islamists before, and he could be a suitable proxy for them if he wins.
If Mourou does not win, it will represent a blow to Ennahda at least psychologically as it will show it to be a weak political entity that is incapable of winning on its own. Thus, it will reduce the party’s ability to control whoever wins the presidential seat.
But the Islamists’ eyes are not just on the presidency, as their leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi has announced his candidacy for a parliamentary seat, leading a list of candidates from Ennahda.
If Al-Ghannouchi wins, he will be eligible to run for the speaker of the parliament should his Party garner enough votes to win a majority of the seats.
That would mean that if the president of Tunisia dies or is unable to perform his duties, Al-Ghannouchi would be the next in line to hold the position temporarily, as is the case with current interim president Mohamed Ennaceur.
Though still marred by economic, political and terrorism issues, Tunisia has witnessed relative stability in comparison to the rest of the region over the past decade, and this gave the country some relief during Essebsi’s rule.
But the death of Essebsi has left the country at a crossroads as to whether it should continue to retain its reputation as a secular modern state or whether it will slide into the abyss of Islamist rule that has been the fate of many nations beforehand, including Iran and Turkey.
Though at a crossroads now, the road is clear for all Tunisians should they choose to take it, and this year’s elections could be a turning point in the country’s modern history. If the Islamists gain a grip on the country this time round, there will hardly be any turning back for years to come.
The Islamists in Tunisia see these elections as their last hurrah after years of attempting to reach full power in the country.
Given the Islamists’ defeats and setbacks in other countries in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Libya and Sudan, and the possible vanquishing of the so-called Islamist Project after the Arab Spring Revolutions, the elections in Tunisia are crucial.
This is so because they may even surpass the importance of those in 2014 because an Islamist failure now would mean that Tunisian citizens have rejected the emotional and religious rhetoric that the Islamists have utilised for decades and that they are now willing to continue to forge their own modern state for others in the region to follow.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.