Tunisian Presidential Elections and Monetizing Islamophobia At The Ballot Box

The front runner in the Tunisian upcoming presidential elections Beji Cassid Essebsi has cast himself, starting with the formation of the new party Nidaa Tounes, as the rescuer for the country. Because, in Essebsi view, “the Islamists don’t have experience being in power. They are incompetent and have been in favor of radical Islamist movements.” In a more recent interview with France24 Mr. Beji pushed further on this framing declaring, “Islamism is a political movement that instrumentalises the religion to get to power, which has nothing to do with religion. Islam here in Tunisia is a religion of openness, of tolerance.

Essebsi’s strategy is centered on the one hand oncasting the Islamist as ‘incompetent’ and unable to effectively rule thus should not be allowed to govern. On the other hand, Essebsi makes sure to problematize political Islam while offering himself and Nidaa Tounes as the custodian of the Tunisian national project with the expertise and know-how to rebuild the collapsed state. The interview in France is very important for it engages a French political elite that is highly Islamophobic and problematizing Islam further fits into domestic programs directed at otherizing Muslims in France. In this context, Islamophobia in France is given an Arab and Muslim leadership cover if not an alliance on policy levels.

For outside observers, the upcoming Tunisian presidential election has been framed as a competition between a secular candidate, Nidaa Tounes’s founder Beji Cassid Essebsi, versus a human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, who is accused of being close to Ennahda, thus soft on Islamist. The vote will be the second round pitting the two top vote getters in an attempt to elect a new president for a five-year term. Since 2011 revolution Tunisia has been in the middle of turmoil and unsettled political and security situation that witnessed assassinations and an emergent militant insurgency. The Ennahda Party won the immediate elections after the revolution but was unable to govern effectively while being beset with a deepening economic crisis and a most fractured political landscape that provided an opening to the old guard to come back into center stage through Nidaa Tounes and contest elections.

The presidential elections come after Nidaa Tounes came first in the October 26th, 2014 parliamentary elections winning 85 seats while Ennahda coming in second place with 69 in the 217 seat parliament. For sure, parliamentary results and the 1st round of the presidential vote point to a shift away from the revolutionary coalition and a return to Ben Ali’s old guards under the new rubric of Nidaa Tounes.

Indeed, the framing of the elections has taken a reductionist approach by constructing a secular-religious binary in the upcoming votewhile glossing over critical developments in the country since the 2011 peaceful revolution. The old guard that has ruled the country since independence has come back into the driver seat and one can hardly be impressed with the cast of characters offering themselves as the champions of a post-revolutionary Tunisia.

The Tunisian elections need to be placed in the larger regional context in the region whereby the old bureaucratic faces, military and security apparatus, neoliberal economic elites and authoritarian minded politicians are back at the driver seat. In addition, the ever present machination with ex-colonial and Western powers so as to project creditability and assurance to keep the ship moving in the ‘right’ direction.

When it comes to Tunis and political developments in the Arab world reality is indeed the theater of the absurd since Essebsi and the ancient regime guards are accusing others of being incompetent in running the economy and the country! Mind you this charge is coming from a group that was in a position to drive the country into the ground, practiced torture regularly and imprisoned anyone that dared to challenge its dictatorial rule for more than 30 years. If their past speaks of previous success, then we should demand a new definition for failure!

The split in Tunisia is more a north-south one than secular-religious one. Also, it is a split between an elite that relegated to itself the right to construct the state in its own distorted image and narrow interests while preventing all others from having a say about it. While for sure those who took power briefly after the 2011 revolution were ill prepared to deal with the multitude of economic, political, social and religious problems inherited from a most corrupt regime but a problem 50 years in the making can’t be undone in few months. From one perspective, we can say that the post-revolution government was unable to find a solution to the problems they inherited, which is a correct assessment of the factual record but the reasons for it are located in the structures inherited over generations since independence and constant external intervention.

The ousting of Ben Ali and his regime is a first step in a long process intended to bring about the birth of a real modern state where the rule of law is foundational and citizens are accorded their rights fully. Furthermore, the transition away from authoritarian rule is not a function of one election or vote but about building democratic state institutions that can protect and nurture a vibrant civil society that can resist the ever-present tendency for dictatorship. Tunisia’s state project is a work in progress and having numerous challenges at hand with the constant risk of sliding back into a despotic form of government. As it stands today, Essebsi is really starting to use the same type of language and approach that created the despotic regime in Tunisia in the first place.

By problematizing and otherizing the democratically inclined Islamists Essebsi is opting to ride the wave of Islamophobia and monetize it into votes at the ballot box. In this way, the elections are focused on the supposed threat of the Islamists rather than offering an agenda on how the economic and political issues will be solved. The corrupted elite around Essebsi will offer neoliberal economics, foreign investments, further privatization and possible loans or investment from the Gulf States. In the short run, the effort might generate some hopeful signs in the short run because of the infusion of liquidity but the economic and political approach will be disastrous once again. Let’s be clear the problems are structural and no infusion from the Gulf, France or the European Union will solve the problem and the elite is not interested in making the needed changes.

In economic terms, Tunisia is facing a monumental challenge with unemployment hovering around 30%, inflation is skyrocketing, collapsed infrastructure and an elite that stashed billions outside the country. Polling data indicate that 88% of the population describe the country’s economy as being bad while 51% say they are worse off as a result of the post-revolutionary instability and economic stagnation.

Adding to this economic and political mix a pernicious insurgency fueled by external support from the Gulf States that opted to frustrate and roll back any and all inspired movements for change in the region. For sure, the complexity of the internal situation is furthered by the intervention of regional and global actors wanting a ‘new’ order that is more inline with their own economic and political plans than anything independent or unique in Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries.

The Gulf States strategy includes funneling money into elections, supporting violent groups and calling for even more draconian approaches to Islam with the intent of scaring the populace back into submission and accepting the ancient despotic guards. Clearly this is evidenced in Egypt, Libya and Syria while for sure Tunisia had had its own share and the current political climate is influenced by it.

Parliamentary and current presidential elections are being marketed as a fight between the secular minded Essebsi and Islamist supported Marzouki. However, a more accurate assessment would be to think of the population being forced into a binary so as to keep it away from asking more critical questions about the background and the real ability of the old despotic but new ‘democratic’ leadership. How would the old guard fix what they themselves broke, stole and bankrupted at least for the past 30 years! Using the Islamists as the boogeyman is an easy and well-tested strategy and has been deployed successfully in Europe and today it is in vogue in Tunisia. Islamophobia is monetized into votes at the ballot box in Tunisia and the results will lead to further demonization of Muslims at home and abroad.