There were few surprises in the first post-Ben Ali era elections held in Tunisia on October 23. The Islamic party, al-Nahda, was the clear winner out of a crowded field of some 100 parties but it did not gain an absolute majority because of the way the electoral process was structured. Even so, party leaders were at pains to assure the secularists –” and indeed the West –” that al-Nahda had no plans to establish an Islamic state. “We will spare no effort to create a stable political alliance… We reassure the investors and international economic partners,” al-Nahda spokes-man Abdelhamid Jlazzi said after the unofficial results became known on October 24. The Progressive Democratic Party, the main secular challenger to al-Nahda conceded defeat despite warning throughout the campaign that al-Nahda’s victory would mean the “end” of liberalism and freedoms.
Al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi also went out of his way to stress that his party would not enforce any code of morality nor impose a dress code, especially on Western tourists that flock to its sandy beaches. Alcohol would also be freely available. Ghannouchi who spent 22 years in exile in Britain because of harassment and intimidation by the Ben Ali regime, wants to model Tunisia on Turkey. Thousands of party members were imprisoned and tortured by the Ben Ali regime until his ouster last January. The party was banned from participating even in the tightly controlled elections.
The October 23 vote was for an assembly of 217 members. The assembly will sit for one year to draft a new constitution. It will also appoint a new interim president and government to run the country until fresh elections are held late next year or early in 2013. It would, however, be wrong to assume that the Tunisian people have won their freedom. Many of those that had served the old oppressive regime are still in their posts including the police that have resumed their swagger after an initial period of hesitation when Ben Ali fled the country.
Ben Ali’s enforcers are still ensconced in important decision-making posts and have no intention of giving them up or the privileges that go with them. This is most clearly evident in the pronouncements of the octogenarian Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi. Even while Tunisians went to the polls, Essebsi made clear he did not intend to relinquish power completely and will use a gradual approach to “granting” people’s demands.
Likening the masses’ demand for jobs and freedom to hungry people, Essebsi said: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs,” according to the Washington Post (October 3). Having served under the dictatorship of Ben Ali for decades, Essebsi still believes he must decide how much freedom is good for the people. His behavior is akin to that of a primary school teacher. Children cannot be given too much freedom or they will become spoiled. “You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach,” he insisted.
Essebsi’s remarks were made on the eve of his visit to Washington to meet President Barack Obama on October 7. The meeting was aimed at assuring the Americans that while the long serving dictator was gone, those holding the levers of power in Tunisia will continue to be subservient to the West. Obama was full of praise for Tunisia and its interim leaders. “Given that Tunisia was the first country to undergo the transformation we know as the Arab Spring, and given it is now the first to have elections, we thought it was appropriate that Tunisia (sic) would be the first to visit the White House,” said Obama in a statement issued on the eve of his meeting with Essebsi. Obama also insisted that Tunisia must open up to foreign investment (read exploitation by Western multinationals) and integrated into the global marketplace (read, become a recipient of Western capital and structural adjustment programs).
In his meeting with the Washington Post Essebsi emphasized that while the religion of the people was Islam, Tunisia would not become an “Islamic republic”. How could he make such pronouncements when people had not had a chance to express their views through a free vote at the time of his Washington visit (October 3–”7)? The statement was reflective of the reality in Tunisia: the old guard of the Ben Ali regime is still in control.
Subservience comes naturally to Essebsi and his ilk. The regimes that he had served (Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali) and the interim one that he now heads owe their existence and survival to the West. Before meeting Obama, Essebsi met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said her department would on November 15 bring together 200 American businessmen to discuss ways of propping up the Tunisian economy. The country’s markets were run aground with wealth plunder by the twin clans of Ben Ali and his equally greedy hairdresser wife, Leyla. Billions of dollars were pilfered from the country.
Far from paying attention to this, Essebsi wants to make sure the masses do not get carried away with demanding too much. Even with one foot in the grave, Essebsi who is 84, still believes he has a role to play in the political process and has hinted he would like to serve as prime minister once a new order is in place. He was “picked” by the military-supervised dispensation as prime minister last February after several appointees were rejected by the masses whose protests had driven Ben Ali from power.
Essebsi not only does not intend to relinquish power himself, he even offered unsolicited advice to fellow autocrats in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arabian dictatorships dealing with an impatient public, to go slow. His contemptuous depiction of people as “hungry masses” that do not know what is good for them speaks volumes for the mindset that pervades the region’s dictators. Essebsi said he found himself caught between the continuous eruption of protests by people demanding jobs and higher wages and immediate retribution against members of the former ruling elite. How did he deal with the situation? “I let the protesters express themselves [to let off steam] but sometimes I have had to crack down.”
There are more than 75,000 unemployed university graduates in Tunisia. It was the public humiliation by the police of one such unemployed university graduate-turned- vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, that led to his self-immolation and death sparking the Tunisian uprising. His desperate act did more: it set the entire Muslim East (aka Middle East) on fire. Three dictators have been driven from power; others are teetring on the brink or fighting back and now the West has also become involved trying to coral the people’s legitimate movements as its own. In some places –” Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan, for instance –” the West is trying to shore up its favorite dictators.
On the Tunisian domestic front, various political groupings are coalescing to prevent the mildly Islamic party, al-Nahda, from gaining complete ascendancy. A number of secular groups led by the Progressive Democratic Party have called for an alliance. It includes Ettakatol, the Democratic Modernist Pole and several secular individuals. Another group, al-Moubadara (The Initiative Party) has called for including remnants of the now-banned former ruling party, the Destourian Socialist Party (RCD), into the new system.
It is for al-Nahda, armed with a powerful mandate, to move ahead boldly and assert the people’s rights. Making compromises to accommodate losers or trying to placate the West would not get them very far. The Tunisian masses have made their intentions clear. These should be respected by living up to their expectations of establishing an Islamic republic that would guarantee people’s honor, dignity, justice and fairness in society.