Tunisian Elections Marked by Disappointment With Arab Spring Aftermath

October 10, 2019

Even though the 2011 Arab Spring began in Tunisia and was arguably more successful there than anywhere else, Tunisians are disappointed and not interested in the upcoming presidential runoff vote, says Angela Joya.

Even though the 2011 Arab Spring began in Tunisia and was arguably more successful there than anywhere else, Tunisians are disappointed and not interested in the upcoming presidential runoff vote, says Angela Joya.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington.

Tunisians are getting ready for a runoff vote in their second presidential election since the Arab Spring of 2011. The first round took place last September, and no party or candidate won a clear majority for president nor for parliament. According to exit polls for the parliamentary election, the largest party will be Ennahda, which only got 17.5% of the votes. The runoff for the presidential election is scheduled for next week. The two leading candidates are: Kais Saied, a law professor who received 18.4% of the vote and who promises to overhaul the constitution and decentralize power. Saied supports the criminalization of homosexuality and also supports capital punishment. His main rival is Nabil Karoui, who is running for president from his jail cell where he’s serving a sentence for money laundering. He’s a populist politician and owns his own television channel. His wife, Salwa Smaoui, is managing the campaign on his behalf. Karoui received 15.6% of the vote in the first round.

Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in Tunisia is Angela Joya. She teaches at the Department of International Studies at the University of Oregon, and her most recent book is The Roots of Revolt: A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak. Thanks for joining us again, Angela.

ANGELA JOYA: Thanks for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with the Ennahda Party. It is often called an Islamist party of Tunisia because it claims inspiration from the Islamic revolution of Iran and also from the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is also promoting a liberal agenda and calls for gender equality. What do you think? What does the Ennahda Party actually stand for?

ANGELA JOYA: The Ennahda Party; I guess when you look at some of these political Islamic parties in the region, they are more liberal, definitely in a sense. And the kind of policies they are pushing for, it’s trying to distinguish them from more radical Islamic groups in the region. These are parties that definitely want to engage in the political process and want to play a role within the institutions of the state. So as such, they try to appeal to a broader population in the country, especially a country like Tunisia that’s relatively more modernized in terms of its laws, in relation to women’s rights, and given its past leadership that have taken power and the kind of reforms introduced, social reforms that have allowed trade unionism for example. It’s overall a relatively more open country, more liberal country. And so, Ennahda in that sense is a national party that is aware of this particular context and is trying to respond and act within those boundaries of that context.

GREG WILPERT: In the streets of Paris, France, where there’s a large Tunisian community, there are countless election signs actually promoting various candidates for the Tunisian election. Now, how important would you say is the foreign vote to determine the fate of Tunisians living in Tunisia?

ANGELA JOYA: It’s important but probably not to the extent where we might, or the media might, exaggerate it. When we look at voter turnout, even inside Tunisia, was the second round, quite low, and so it’s a sign definitely of a broader political apathy among voters in Tunisia. I mean, we will have to see next week what happens when the presidential elections happen, but there’s expectation that that would also be quite low turnout. When I speak with my Tunisian colleagues and Tunisian friends, I was in Tunisia in June speaking to people, there is a broader sense that the political process is not fulfilling the expectations and the demands of the people, and so there is a bit of turn away from that, reduced participation in this critical political process to legitimize even the parliamentary elections or presidential elections.

We have to keep in mind that Tunisia was the first country that had the Arab uprisings, the revolution that overthrew their leader. And so at this conjuncture, they’re looking back and they’re assessing what their gains have been so far in terms of demands that the protesters put forward at the time of revolution, late 2010-early 2011. And majority of the people are quite upset at the way things have turned out so far. So speaking to experts–my colleagues, Tunisian colleagues–who are looking at the situation very closely, they are pointing out that even the votes that have gone to Ennahda or some of the other parties in this parliamentary election, it’s overall a reflection of an absence of a radical choice for them. Which then explains why these voters are not going to vote. So there’s definitely an absence of a radical party that could respond to the needs of the people and the movements. In terms of movements, Tunisia has one of the largest social movements since the Arab uprisings that happened in 2010-2011.

And so you can imagine; there’s basically politics happening at another level, at the level of the street. Tunisia is one country where we have seen ongoing number of protests, strike action by the Tunisian Labour Union since 2011, nonstop. So that’s right beneath these political processes of elections, parliamentary elections and presidential elections, that has in some ways… To Tunisians, the only expectation for them is the hope for a peaceful outcome of this and hopefully an increase in the level of security. But in terms of social policies, economic policies, they are not holding their breath. They are quite disappointed with what has happened and they’re now taking it to the streets. If you observe Tunisia in different towns, especially in the interior parts which are more deprived, increasingly poor in the context of Tunisia in general, there’s ongoing protests and massive arrests by the security apparatus, just in this context of parliamentary elections.

GREG WILPERT: It’s interesting that you should mention that Tunisia was the country in which the Arab Spring started back in 2011, and that yet, despite the fact that it started there, the people are so apathetic about these elections because, after all, the Arab Spring ended in tragedy in so many other countries, such as in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and in Syria. Whereas, in Tunisia, it actually seems to have succeeded. So maybe one way to judge this is to see which parties are actually nostalgic for the Ben Ali era. That is, are there any parties or candidates that are nostalgic? Specifically, how do you explain the accusations that are being levied against Abir Moussi, a lawyer and one of the only female candidates in the election, that she is trying to bring back the authoritarian system under which Ben Ali ruled?

ANGELA JOYA: So, are there parties that are basically of the old guard? Yes, in all of these countries. In Egypt, that’s the more popular one now, post the uprisings. And in Tunisia, for sure. Nidaa Tounes was one of such party earlier on in the previous elections. So there are a number of them right now trying to appeal to a sense of stability that people thought they had under Ben Ali prior to the revolution. Talking to ordinary people in Tunisia, there is this sense that there was repression under Ben Ali, but people still had some sense of stability. Cost of living was not so beyond their reach. And so I guess that’s this desire to go back to Ben Ali’s period and why these politicians and political parties think that they can actually revive that and appeal, and actually might succeed and gain votes or seats in the parliament.

So that’s the relationship, why they’re emerging and why they exist. But it also goes beyond that. It’s a structural issue in the Tunisian economy where a lot of these parties that are of the Ben Ali period, these are the ones who are also representative of an economic class that are still holding on a lot of power Tunisian society and Tunisian economy. And so they have not really gone away despite the revolution. In some sense, they are repackaging themselves and presenting themselves to the public as a realistic option, which I think the Tunisians are much too politically savvy to fall for that. But they will probably have a chance, just because people might have that sense or desire for political stability of what they think Ben Ali’s period represented.

But I wanted to just make a mention that what we should not forget is that the current conjuncture–2019, right now–is the end of an International Monetary Fund loan that the Tunisian government in 2016 borrowed from the IMF. So this has wrecked Tunisian society in very dramatic ways, where now there are actually anti-International Monetary Fund protests. They’re protests to basically say, “Stop the austerity. Stop the effect of these reforms on Tunisian population.” Tunisian currency, it basically declined in terms of its value, 40% in relation to the dollar and Euro since 2011. And so you can imagine the inflation and then the rising cost of living as a result of that that has affected ordinary Tunisians where they will have to do two, three jobs; they cannot afford basic cost of living. The quality of services are declining, and so on a daily basis there’s a huge degree of harsh living conditions that Tunisians have to deal with.

So this, 2019, is the year when they are trying to wrap up that International Monetary Fund deal and there’s massive resistance against that. If you recall, one of their major politicians, Moncef Marzouki, back in 2011 launched a Trust and Reconciliation Commission, and in July this year, 2019, they issued a report and they sent it to the World Bank and to International Monetary Fund, basically demanding reparations for their participation and encouragement of violation of human rights in Tunisia. They are claiming that all the reforms that they demanded through their loans, they have caused huge suffering among the population, and they’re also bringing in the repression, where violent repression by the state is also basically alluded to these international financial institutions, who they are holding accountable.

So this, in itself, is quite radical to see that they’re not necessarily looking at the individual politicians in the country; that they’re seeing much bigger structural problems and they’re tackling that and trying to escape out of this ongoing similar model of economic development that they’re finding quite frustrating. That’s the same with Rached Ghannouchi, that Ennahda leader who is actually proposing a completely different model of economic development within the free market boundaries. But he’s trying to reorient Tunisia away from European countries, France, other countries that have been trading or establishing businesses there. He’s trying to reorient it towards Africa. And Tunisia has not had much ties with Africa. That might explain the appeal of him among the population and why he’s gaining the kind of votes that he has gained in this parliamentary election.

GREG WILPERT: Well, that’s really interesting. And we’ll definitely continue to follow the election and see what the results will be when they take place next week. But we’re going to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Angela Joya, Professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon. Thanks again, Angela, for having joined us today.

ANGELA JOYA: Thank you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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