Tunisia | Newsmakers

Will Beji Caid Essebsi lend a hand to the democratization process?

Elections in Tunisia in October, which saw the secular Nidaa Tounes party (39.7%) narrowly beat the incumbent Islamic party, Ennahda (31.8% of the vote), were widely praised for being free and fair. Questions remain, however, about their democratic robustness. Led by an 87-year-old statesman, Beji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes faces the difficult task of forming a coalition government, most likely with other secular parties. “The problem is that none of them has the weight, numbers and clout of Ennahda to prevent a return to one-party dominance/hegemony,” says Larbi Sadiki, associate professor of international relations and democratization at Qatar University.

Sadiki says Essebsi could easily win forthcoming presidential elections but he does not believe that Essebsi is the answer to Tunisia’s economic woes. “He [Essebsi] has a liberal agenda that unequivocally endorses free-market economics—along with a moderate agenda to level the playing fields amongst the regions. He has no money to do this: He is relying on tax revenue and foreign investment.” The IMF and the World Bank are expected to scrutinize the new government’s economic plans closely. Sadiki says Essebsi can lend a helping hand to the democratization process by not alienating Ennahda and others he disagrees with and by avoiding divisive politics. But Nidaa Tounes’s antagonistic rhetoric has worsened since the party’s victory, adds Sadiki. “This has to be toned down, so that calm returns to the public and the certainties Tunisians are seeking from politicians prove more than a chimera or a desert mirage.”

While the emerging political culture is consensual, Sadiki says even in consensual societies one finds pockets of extremism. “The rise of Salafi politics [religiously right-wing individuals] in Tunisia has not helped the situation—it has caused lots of damage to Ennahda’s moderate politics.”

To an extent, the election was about the return of old certainties: social peace, moderation, jobs and overall stability. “That is largely what the public saw in an 87-year-old politician,” Sadiki explains. “But neither Essebsi nor anyone else in Tunisia,” he adds, “has a magic wand.” The biggest thing going for Tunisia in the foreseeable future, says Sadiki, is compromise. “It is the only social and political capital that Tunisia can bank on to promote itself as a stable haven for investment, sustainable democratization, reproducible peaceful politics, and power-sharing as outlined in the country’s new democratic constitution of January 2014.”