Tunisia: Ennahda’s breakthrough brings major change in political landscape

Election ‘success story’ masks growing anger from below

A massive media campaign – on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, in the streets – has been beating the drums for weeks to exhort Tunisian people to go to the polling stations, as the elections for the Constituent Assembly were taking place on 23 October. The newly-elected assembly is supposed to rewrite the constitution, to choose a new interim government, and to set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections.

The elections have been marked by the victory of the Islamist party Ennahda, which opens a new, complex situation, against the background of a continuing crisis in the economy, and deep thirst for social change among the masses.

After decades of dictatorship, and the farcical polls that have characterised all the past elections under Ben Ali’s rule, these elections were for many Tunisians the first occasion in their life to vote in the framework of ‘real elections’, without already knowing the falsified results in advance. This gives an important explanation for the large electoral turnout, as many had decided to turn up to exercise a right they had been deprived of for so many years. Also, the revolution has politicised broad layers of people, and many decided to vote because they don’t want the ruling elites to do whatever they like behind their backs any more.

Voters que at a polling station

Yet, as Dali, a Tunisian activist, explains, “The participation is not as massive as the media want us to believe. The idea that over 90% of the population has voted is nothing but manipulation of figures, because this percentage is only based on the 4.1 million people who had registered on the electoral lists beforehand. In reality, the real turnout is probably more around 60%.” Indeed, despite the relatively high turnout, and the expectations that the first, supposedly ’democratic’, elections have aroused among some layers, large scepticism and important distrust towards politicians prevail, especially among young people and in the socially-devastated interior regions.

Ennahda set to take office

Even if the complete results have still not been announced yet, it is clear that the Islamist party Ennahda comes through by far as the first party, leading in almost every region, winning around 90 seats in the 217-seat Constituent Assembly, with 40% of the vote. At first sight, this may appear surprising as, at the start of the year, this party was hardly visible in the mass protests, and its role in the revolution has been inexistent. However, the party has benefited from the lack of a challenging alternative on the left, whose lack of a strategic vision, a clear revolutionary programme to develop the revolution and to build roots in popular areas has given the opportunity for Ennahda to seize on the vacuum. Dali explains: “The rhetoric of the left – radical in its form, but very poor in its programmatic content – has not been able to appeal to the masses. This has deprived them of a real base amongst the poor, whom the Islamists have been able to win over.”

By relying on a network of charitable organisations active in the poorest neighbourhoods and towns, and on huge financial means allegedly pouring from the Gulf monarchies, Ennahda has campaigned all over the country exploiting people’s frustrations by playing on their religious sentiments and on a populist social rhetoric, for example by promising the creation of “590,000 jobs in five years”, and an end to decades of regional disparity. “I voted Ennahda because the other parties want 10% of the population to live in luxury while the rest of the population remain in poverty,” explained an old man interviewed in a French-speaking newspaper.

The victory of Ennahda is also based on their pledge of bringing morality into political life, rejecting ‘mafiocracy’ and state corruption, even though vote-buying practices have not been absent from their own methods. They also have the image of being martyrs, because of their persecution under Ben Ali’s regime when Ennahda used to be banned, and a lot of its members imprisoned, tortured or forced into exile. In a situation in which up to 40 of the more than 100 parties which stood in the elections, were estimated to be creatures of the ex-ruling party, the RCD, Ennahda appeared for many as a reliable card to vote for, as a ‘real break’ from the past.

Ennahda supporters celebrate

The fact that some of Ennahda’s political opponents have engaged in a counter-campaign displaying empty secularist jargon, while not addressing the pressing needs and concerns of the broad masses -and this in a country with a large Muslim population- has generally played into Ennahda’s hands. This is something the CWI had been warning about from the beginning.

Socialists should carefully address the need for separating state and religion. Socialists defend the right of people to have their own religious beliefs and to express them, but separate from the state. However, for historical reasons, secularism is often perceived by many Tunisian Muslims as the denial of such rights.

Ben Ali’s security services used to prosecute and intimidate people who were practicing their religion or displaying ‘too much’ religiosity. For example, people could appear suspect, or even face arrest or police violence, just for praying in mosques. Women were forbidden from wearing the veil in universities and public administration offices etc. People remember well that Ben Ali, after his seizure of power, exploited the Islamist threat to justify his rule, before cracking down on every existing space of liberty and imposing gradually his horrendous dictatorship.

Parties which have focused their campaigns along similar lines, trying to polarise the political landscape by opposing the so-called ‘modernists’ to the ‘obscurantists’, include the Pole Démocrate Moderniste (PDM – a list driven by Ettajdid) and the PDP. They have pushed away many voters, especially among working-class and impoverished layers. These two parties have also been punished because of their open collaboration with the first post-Ben Ali transitional administration, full of counter-revolutionary figures from the dictatorship. The PDP has also paid a price for its notorious alliance with big business and with ex-RCDists and other survivors of the old regime who, in some cases, have even been granted leadership positions in the party. The party, which a month ago was still evoking its ambition of becoming ‘the first party’ of Tunisia, has suffered a humiliating defeat, bringing crisis into its ranks.

As Dali explains: “For months we have been hearing a debate – dominated by bourgeois forces, people from the old regime and right-wing media – aimed at eclipsing social and economic issues, which are the main concern of ordinary people, and concentrating on abstract questions about identity, secularism and religion. People have generally voted for parties which have avoided this ‘divide and rule’ strategy – those addressing social issues and talking about real questions.”

This is the case with the Congress for the Republic (CPR), founded by the human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, largely seen as an honest politician and a principled, historic opponent to Ben Ali’s dictatorship. It also applies to the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (Ettakatol, in Arabic). Both have done well in the election getting 30 seats and 21 seats respectively, according to the latest estimates.

There was an unexpected breakthrough by the list El Aridha (People’s Petition party). It is led by a millionaire, Hechmi Haamdi – a former Islamist, who then became an open ally of the Ben Ali regime before turning against him, and who owns a TV station broadcasting by satellite from London. Promising baguettes (French bread) at 100 millimes, a subsidy of 200 dinars for every unemployed person, free transport for the elderly, the building of social housing and free health care, he was able to pick up many votes just by exploiting the economic misery of inhabitants from the poorest regions of the country, as well the support he had from networks from the ex-RCD in those areas. He also exploited the fact that he came from Sidi Bouzid, by playing on regionalist resentment against the relatively higher living standards of northern coast cities. All this without even putting a foot inside Tunisia during the whole electoral campaign.

Because of the number of obvious irregularities of his campaign however, Haamdi’s lists have been cancelled in 6 regions, which has pushed him to cancel all the other lists in the aftermath, denouncing the ‘rotten’ character of the assembly. As this party had won about 30 seats, this could now reconfigure the number of seats attributed to all the other parties. The whole story around Haamdi was the key element triggering explosive protests and riots in Sidi Bouzid on Thursday, involving the burning of the regional Ennahda’s headquarters.

This last story highlights the social despair present in the poorest regions of the country, but also the fact that, although these elections were incomparably more democratic than during Ben Ali’s era, they were nevertheless infected by all the dirty aspects of capitalist elections, primarily determined by how much money each party and candidate has in his pocket, and full of manipulation of all sorts. Dali comments: “There have already been over 800 complaints because of infringements of the electoral rules, suspicious funding, vote-buying practices, intimidation of people to force them to vote for one party or another, corruption of all sorts… And this is not coming from the ‘big losers’ like the PDP, which stated that these elections were a model of democracy, but from angry ordinary people who don’t want parties using similar methods to those of the old regime.”

What to come?

If the poll outcome was generally welcomed by the major capitalist powers and their media commentators, the arrival of Ennadha as a major political force on the scene is being subject to detailed scrutiny, and is not without worries. It is clear that the leadership of Ennahda is fundamentally pro-big business. Its leaders have multiplied speeches and messages indicating that the economic partners of the country, especially European capitalism, have nothing to worry about. “We hope to very quickly return to stability and favourable conditions for investment,” said Abdelhamid Jlassi, director of the Executive Committee of the party. Ennadha’s leadership has deployed many efforts to prove they are capable of being a respectable, moderate and pro-Western Islamic party. Rached Ghannouchi, its main leader, consistently refers to Turkey’s ruling ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP) of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, describing his party as a mainstream and democratic centre-right party, “with roots in religion”.

On the other hand, among the educated youth, the urban middle class but also among many working class people, and especially women, fears are present that Ennadha’s victory could be translated in attempts at rolling back some of their rights, imposing an islamisation of society and reactionnary restrictions on social values (such as regressive laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance, polygamy, alcohol, headscarves, etc). This danger is not unfounded, especially as a more hard-line wing exists inside the party, who could feel more confident because of Ennahdha’s electoral victory, and try to push through a more hard-line agenda.

Fears of a ‘hidden’ agenda by Ennahda have been reinforced by the fact that some groups of Salafists have flexed their muscles in the recent months, attacking a cinema and a TV station over material they considered blasphemous, demonstrating to demand an “Islamic revolution” , and physically brutalising left activists and women.


The connection between Ennahda and these firebrands of fundamentalists remains nebulous, and high suspicion exists that some of these groups are also manipulated and infiltrated by the security services, which have tried to whip up fears about the “integrist danger” in order to create chaos and potentially justify a crackdown if further opposition to the regime develops. Seeing the historic conflict between Tunisian political Islam and the old secular authoritarianism of Ben Ali’s system, the core of which is still in place, potential clashes could also develop between the new ruling Islamist party, and the police apparatus, high state bureaucracy and networks of the old RCD.

Ennahda will lack an absolute majority in the new assembly, and will find it difficult to impose a hard-line agenda, especially in a country that has just experienced a revolution, and which includes a strong secular tradition. Dali confirms that: “The Islamist danger is tempered by the fact that they come in power just after a revolution, and people won’t let them do what they want. People have learnt to fight whenever they feel their rights are under threat.” The concessions that Ennahda could be forced to make in the writing of the new constitution and in the new ruling coalition could even see some hard-liners splitting from the party, on the basis that it has become ‘too liberal’ and too aligned on ‘Western values’.

On the other hand, if the left does not take the initiative, and does not offer a serious alternative programme to the working class and the poor masses to impose real change, it cannot be ruled out that Ennahda, gaining the upper hand, decides to move into a more fundamentalist direction. As we wrote last May: “The party’s double language shows that it remains torn by internal contradictions. The most influential leaders of the party are showing at the moment a willingness to barter imperialist support in exchange for some guarantees to present a more respectable image and an allegiance to the rules of ‘democracy’, and a systematic public disassociation from the activities of fundamentalist groups. How far this can go, however, remains to be seen; splits or defections from its ranks, or shifts in one direction or the other, could emerge on the basis of the coming events, when Ennahdha will have to go beyond the level of simple propaganda.”

All these contradictory elements will be put under test in the coming months.

Is the revolution over?

“The ruling class and its mouthpieces pretend that these elections are the culmination, the final point of our revolution. The social and economic grievances are just a detail; this revolution was for free elections. End of story.

“They will now try to use the ‘success story’ of these elections in an attempt to close the revolutionary chapter, to bring back politics from the streets to the institutions, from the creative energy of the masses towards a caste of professional politicians, the majority of them having played no role in the revolution whatsoever. But the ’people of the assembly’ are not ’the people of the revolution’,” comments Dali.

This of course is a reflection of the absence of a genuine party of the working people and poor which could have provided a platform through which the masses’ interests could have been seriously advocated during this election. The PCOT and the Movement of Patriot-Democrats – the two left-wing parties contesting these elections – were, to a limited extent, able to play such a role. Together, they are estimated to have got four seats: three for the PCOT and one for the MPD. Unfortunately, they remained very evasive on their economic programme, and lost momentum by refusing to challenge explicitly Essebsi’s transitional government until very late. Their reluctance to oppose the treacherous policy of the leading bureaucracy within the union federation, the UGTT, and their failure to argue for clear socialist policies, have confused their message and limited their appeal to the working class, the peasants and the poor.

A PCOT Press conference

Before the poll took place, intimidating speeches were made by Essebsi’s government, targeting protests, sit-ins and strikes, describing people involved in those actions as a minority who want to disrupt the electoral process. Disgracefully, such speeches were echoed by the trade union executive leadership, who advised its different regional and sectoral apparatuses to avoid any industrial action during the pre-electoral period.

These attacks on the right to strike, coming from inside the trade union movement, did not get any serious response from the left. If not challenged seriously, the union bureaucracy will continue to use its leading position to sabotage working-class action on every occasion. What will be their next argument? That workers who go on strike are undermining the legitimacy of a democratically-elected government?

The genuine left and trade union activists cannot wait any more before setting up an alternative platform in the run-up to the Congress of the UGTT in December. They need to use the period ahead to prepare the fight for the removal of the corrupt and rotten Ben Ali-supporters who are still running the union, and who have demonstrated again and again that they are the worst enemies of the working class. This would require democratic workplace and community-based committees, as well as the democratisation of the UGTT.

Struggle ahead

Despite this climate of intimidation, sporadic protests and strikes have continued on a regular basis. The elections were hardly finished before an important demonstration kicked off in Redeyef – the very militant mining town near Gafsa – notably demanding justice for the martyrs whose case has been systematically denigrated by the present authorities. The latter have done everything to protect criminals and killers from any serious prosecution.

On Thursday an open, national postal workers’ strike to demand wage increases has started. Now that the elections are finished, new workers’ actions could erupt onto the scene once again, as the working class wants ‘democracy’ to be translated in a fundamental change in living and working conditions.

The impression of relative stability and the hopes of a smooth, orderly democratic transition could be short-lived, as Tunisian society faces a deep crisis, and remains marked by profound social contradictions. Indeed, the daily lives of the Tunisian masses have hardly changed. If anything, they have got worse.

Prices of essential commodities, especially food items, have been continuously on the rise because of distributors’ speculation, numerous arrivals of people fleeing the Libyan war, and some panic buying by ordinary households. The unemployment rate has risen officially from 14% to 19% since the beginning of the year. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the poorest regions, unemployment figures mount sometimes over 40%. In the beginning of September, five men, who had failed for years to find any job, attempted to hang themselves together on a public square in Kasserine, in the central-west of the country.

The dramatic lack of jobs, at the heart of the revolution, remains like a time-bomb. An old woman queuing at a polling station, asked to comment on TV, said: “Can I really say what I want? Those parties, if they don’t provide jobs for our children, I swear to you, we will take arms and kick them out!”

Moreover, the sense of political freedom that exists in the country remains very precarious. This cannot be otherwise, as the political scene has not been properly cleaned out, and the state apparatus is still infested by corrupt elements, thirsty for revenge and with a counter-revolutionary agenda. Security forces continue to be a threat to ordinary people, with arbitrary arrests, beatings and tortures occurring on a daily basis.

Will they deliver?

There is a widespread sentiment that, if politicians cannot respond to people’s aspirations for real change, there will be another revolution on the table. Yet everything indicates that such a change is not going to happen if the masses do not get involved and organised. That is the most realistic lesson of the revolutionary experience of the last ten months, and of Ennahda’s victory.

The two parties which have engaged in talks to form a coalition with Ennahda, the CPR and the FDTL, have made their intentions clear. In mid-September, Moncef Marzouki, leader of the CPR, said in an interview that investors “with clean hands” will be “welcome” in his party. When it comes to the FDTL, it advocates a favourable business climate and talks of the necessity to “attenuate social tensions”.

Any parties or coalition basing itself on the continuation of capitalism will not find a strong basis for any lasting chance of success. The economic turmoil facing world capitalism, and the poverty wages and mass unemployment facing the Tunisian masses, prevent any path for a sustainable development of the country as long as the economy is ruled in the interests of a thin layer of big, predatory companies and banks. By pledging to respect the economic model of Tunisia, which has been a disaster for the lives of millions of people, these parties will not be able to provide viable solutions to the social needs of the workers and the poor. And they know it.

On a TV debate on Tuesday, Mustapha Ben Jafaar (FDTL) argued for a broad, national unity government, complaining that it would not be fair if a few opposition parties “can get all the benefits of the popular anger”. The prevailing social and economic instability is likely to lead to an unpredictable political situation, made up of crisis and uncertainty, because the revolutionary spirit for change among the masses – although relatively muted in the recent period – has not been brought under control.

The Tunisian revolution is far from finished. New outbreaks of struggle are inevitable, as a restoration and stabilisation of the existing economic system can only be done by blocking the masses’ aspirations for a new life, that have been awakened by their revolution.

Dali says: “Ennahda leaders are now saying that people need to be patient, people have to wait because they don’t have a magic wand to solve their problems. But people are not going to wait, because the conditions don’t allow us to wait. The revolutionary movement cannot give up. The working masses, the trade unions, need to be prepared for new battles.

“The history of all revolutions shows that elections cannot be an end in themselves. Seeing the nature of the winning parties in this election, the real future for Tunisian people will not be determined in this constituent assembly: it will be determined in the streets, in the workplaces, in the unions. The masses will have to demystify the power of this assembly, in order to impose their own power.”

The left forces representing workers and youth must explain how hopes cannot be realised on the basis of the old crony capitalism. If they put forward demands for full employment, sharing existing work, implementing a programme of mass house-building, nationalising industry, land and banks under workers’ control and management, they can gather force very rapidly. A mass party which genuinely represents the interests of the workers and all those exploited by capitalism is needed as well as a socialist programme that would continue the social revolution, and extend it internationally.

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October 2011