Tunisia may be headed for a legal and constitutional crisis due to the continued detention of Nabil Karoui, the runner-up in the first round of presidential elections who will now contest the runoff on 13 October. Karoui certainly has the right to challenge the outcome of the elections if he loses. He could easily argue that he had been deprived the constitutionally stipulated guarantee of equal opportunity in campaigning which, in turn, would cast a shadow over the credibility of the elections. The High Authority for Elections, itself, cautioned against Karoui’s continued detention which deprived him of his right to run his campaign freely outside of jail. The head of the electoral authority stated that it was impossible to suspend or postpone the elections and that the authority would try to find a way to ensure that the principle of equal opportunity between the candidates is met.
His rival Kais Saïd has made it clear that he is uncomfortable with Karoui’s continued detention. “The situation does not sit well with me. But it is the court that has the ultimate say in this. I can’t intervene in the decisions taken by the prosecuting authority,” he said in a television interview in response to statements by regional and international organisations questioning the fairness of the first round because Karoui didn’t have the right to take part in the televised debates and to communicate with voters directly. But Saïd also said that he, himself, didn’t own a television station, or other type of media outlet, alluding to Karoui’s privately owned Nessma TV which he had used to promote himself and his charitable activities during the past three years.
Tunisia has experienced numerous crises since the popular uprising that brought the overthrow of Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. However, it deftly managed to navigate through the turbulence and achieve a “good” democratic transition despite the economic straits and social problems that plagued nine successive governments. It is impossible to deny the crucial role played by the late president Caid Essebsi in this process, thanks to his wisdom, long political expertise and sensitivity to the dangers of the political conflicts and polarisations in the region and in Tunisia in particular. Essebsi realised the need to forge alliances and consensuses with other political forces — Ennahda Party in particular — and he succeeded in this despite some of its negative repercussions for some other countries in the region and despite the divisions this caused within his own party, Nidaa Tounes, some members of which opposed an alliance or accommodation with the Islamist-oriented Ennahda.
The relationship between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes was a bumpy one. Ennahda continually complained that it was underrepresented in the cabinets formed under Essebsi’s rule and it also fuelled acrimony and divisions within Nidaa Tounes through its support for Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, causing strains between him and Essebsi. Nevertheless, the language of dialogue and common interests prevailed in the disputes and this became a trademark of Tunisia’s new democratic model.
The turnout for the presidential elections this year was relatively low when compared to the 2014 elections, according to observers. Young people, in particular, sat out this poll primarily due to cumulative frustration after nine governments have failed to remedy their economic and social concerns and aspirations. Unemployment rates in Tunisia are very high and the rates of economic migration are climbing. Such factors drove voters to “punish” all candidates connected to the current order, the established parties and remnants of the former regime by voting for “outsiders”. If this “anti-establishment” sentiment formed the main determinant of the outcome, the televised debates between the candidates exposed not just the lack of candidates with the stature and statesmanship to serve as president, but also the high levels of superficiality and ignorance among them, even though the hopefuls included a prime minister, a defence minister, a speaker of parliament, a former president and other ministers. Voters could not help but to wonder, bitterly, at the audacity of candidates who, in their bids to seek the highest office, showed such disdain for the people’s intelligence.
Despite the signs, the results of the first round came as a surprise to observers. Most predictions had favoured Abdel-Fattah Mourou of Ennahda, Youssef Chahed of his newly formed Long Live Tunisia Party and the independent candidate Abdelkrim Zbidi as the frontrunners in the first round. As it turned out, Kais Saïd and Karoui came in first and second respectively, well ahead of the other candidates, and they will now face each other on 13 October.
Ennahda has yet to come to grips with the shock that its candidate, Mourou, only came in third. Before Essebsi’s death, the Islamist party seemed uncertain and divided over whether to field its own candidate or to back another who enjoyed its confidence. Statements by Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi and other senior party members gave the impression that they tended towards the latter option because they feared that fielding an Ennahda candidate would trigger adverse reactions regionally and internationally where the general mood was strongly averse to the prospect of the rise of another Islamist movement to power after the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Although the Tunisian 2014 Constitution has considerably restricted the powers of the president, limiting them to the conduct of foreign policy, defence and national security, the office carries considerable value in the Tunisian collective consciousness, especially in light of the honorary and moral weight it has acquired over more than 60 years of one-man rule.
It is difficult to predict who will win on Sunday. The campaigns are heated and filled with mutual mudslinging and accusations. There is also the possibility that regional or international powers might try to influence the elections in one way or another, depending on their interests.
The results of the legislative elections this week are also likely to affect the presidential polls at the last minute. In the event that neither side receives a sufficient majority to form a government on its own, some coalition arrangement will be required, prompting political forces to enter into various talks and deals regarding the shape of a cabinet and which presidential candidate to back. Such processes of consensus making are one of the advantages of the parliamentary system, especially in periods of democratic transition.
No one doubts Kais Saïd’s integrity and the sincerity with which he advances his electoral platform, his conservative outlooks and his desire to return to the principles of the 2011 Revolution. However, he lacks administrative expertise and political acumen and his ambitious ideas are generally abstract and speculative and unfeasible given the current complexities in a country and society that has not fully matured democratically. In addition, his outlook remains heavily informed by the pre-revolutionary religious, ethnic, regional and tribal legacy, which could end up stranding him in the realms of jurisprudential theory and argumentation that have little to do with the day-to-day management of government.
Saïd believes that the reason he came in first in the preliminary round lay in his personal appeal to youth. Yet, some observers suspect that he was assisted by forces behind the scenes which worked to build up a public image of untarnished integrity and sell it to younger audiences frustrated at inefficacy and corruption and yearning for a saviour. According to this theory, these forces plan to turn him into one of their instruments to advance their own particular project. In all events, a number of political forces, most notably Ennahda, are supporting Saïd in the second round. Former president Moncef Marzouki and a number of other conservative independents such as Safi Saïd, Lotfi Mraïhi and Seif Eddine Makhlouf, have also announced their support for Saïd.
Nabil Karoui, for his part, is a well-known, if controversial, figure. He was arrested on 23 August, just weeks before the presidential polls, on a charge of tax evasion and money laundering, reviving a case brought against him three years ago by a transparency watchdog. Karoui, who owns Nessma TV and a charitable organisation, denies any wrongdoing.
The writer is an expert on national security affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.