Christine Petré
Last updated: 26 November, 2014

Tunisia, back to basics?

As Tunisia held the country’s first free and secure presidential election on Sunday, voters who long for more stability and an improved economy were lured by old, familiar, and “strong” leadership. Your Middle East's editor reports from the country's capital.

According to Tunisia’s election authorities, 62.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, slightly lower than the 69 percent of registered voters who went to the polls in last month’s parliamentary elections. In that round, secular-leaning political party Nidaa Tounes gained the majority of votes, eighty-five of the 217 parliamentary seats, followed by moderate Islamist party Ennahda with sixty-nine seats.

Out of more than a dozen presidential candidates, Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi gained the majority of votes with 39.46 percent, followed by Moncef Marzouki with 33.43 percent, and Hamma Hammami and Slim Riahi receiving 7.82 percent and 5.55 percent, respectively. The numbers indicate that, despite Essebsi’s leadership in former authoritarian administrations, many Tunisians trust the familiar and strong political veteran. 

WAVING THEIR red and white flag on election day, Tunisians can be proud of how they have managed their democratic transition. However, life since the revolution has been turbulent. The post-revolutionary period has been characterized by deteriorating security, growing radicalism, political assassinations, and terrorist attacks on security forces. In addition, the country continues to struggle economically with an unemployment rate of 15 percent, believed to be double that among the country’s youth. Frustration and fading patience over the failing security and economy united voters across gender, age, and political party lines. All agree that the primary priorities now are to bring the economy back on its feet and to restore security.

According to the results from Sunday, most Tunisians believe that 87-year-old (turning 88 this week) Essebsi is the right man for the job.

In a turbulent and vulnerable period, Essebsi’s political strategy of projecting strength and familiarity has been clever and proven successful. Nidaa Tounes has been running a political campaign of “state prestige,” with close association with former leader Habib Bourguiba, the “Father of Independence.” Many voters praise Essebsi’s political experience and understanding of the country, perceiving him as a sophisticated, intelligent, and, most importantly, strong figure.

“The country continues to struggle economically with an unemployment rate of 15 percent”

Many of Essebsi’s supporters, in a country used to elderly leaders, dismiss the argument from critics that he is too old to govern. “We will all die at some point anyway,” said a 20-something Hamdi Jmin at a polling station in Bizerte, a town north of the capital Tunis, not seeing Essebsi’s age as an issue worth taking into account.  

We need someone like Essebsi, someone wise, said middle-aged voter Abdelmajid Baouab, who argued that Essebsi’s age is proof of his many years of political experience. “He is a bit like Churchill,” he said, smiling.

Twenty-nine-year-old election observer Selima Dinguizli voted for Essebsi but questioned her vote for Nidaa Tounes, explaining that she was unhappy about contributing to bringing former Ben Ali regime leaders back to power, ultimately, she determined it was in Tunisia’s best interest, but the hesitation speaks to deeper concerns about Nidaa’s ranks. Many former elite members of both Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s reigns are today members of the party. Critics therefore label Essebsi as anti-democratic, viewing him as a symbol of the past and comparing him with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Many of these anti-Essebsi voters have rallied behind incumbent interim president and former human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, who finished second in the presidential race, according to the preliminary polling results, and will likely face Essebsi in a run-off at the end of this year. His supporters see him as a symbol of the revolution, a man of the people, and a strong opponent to former authoritarian rule.

SUPPORTERS OF ENNAHDA, which did not run or endorse a presidential candidate, are believed to back Marzouki. “I will vote for Marzouki because he will keep Tunisia free,” explained Lazzem, a middle-aged voter who argued that it is important that Nidaa Tounes does not dominate the political scene. Should Essebsi win, and with his party holding the most seats in parliament, who would check Nidaa Tounes’ power, critics ask, questioning the young party’s democratic commitment and principles. Leftists have also questioned the very purpose of the revolution if people now simply vote old regime figures back into power.


Yet, Marzouki does not appear to convince enough Tunisians that he is the strong leader they are used to. Critics deem his leadership style as insincere and unsuitable to represent Tunisia on an official level. Given the choice between Essebsi and Marzouki, Sheyma Arfewi, a twenty-six-year-old teacher in Jendouba, would choose Essebsi, arguing that “he is like an enlightened dictator, which is better than a humanist who doesn’t want to wear a tie.”

According to Oxford University researcher Monica Marks, it is not surprising to see regime nostalgia in Tunisia. “It happens in almost every political transition, especially when people don’t see quick economic improvements,” she explained. 

AS POLLING STATIONS closed on Election Day, election observers noted the absence of youth, many of whom are believed to relate more with Marzouki’s revolutionary rhetoric and platform. Nevertheless, many young people continue to feel frustration over the country’s post-revolutionary progress and do not have much faith or trust in the political system. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 30 percent of youth felt that the system of government “doesn’t matter.”

As neither of the candidates managed to get more than 50% of the votes a runoff is scheduled for December between Essebsi and Marzouki. The next few weeks are likely to see a heated debate. However, unless Marzouki manages to re-brand himself as a strong and trustworthy leader and galvanize younger voters, it will likely be difficult for him to challenge Essebsi. Whatever the outcome, Sunday’s results indicate that the victor will have to strike a delicate balance in governing—between projecting strength and upholding principles that prevent the rolling back of hard-fought freedoms.