A Political “Divorce” in Tunisia Is the Starting Gun for Next Year’s Election

Faisal Al Yafai

After Tunisia’s municipal elections in May, the head of Nidaa Tounes, one of the two main political parties in the country’s parliament, was asked about a possible alliance at the next presidential election between him and the other major political party, the Islamist Ennahda. Hafedh Caid Essebsi was unequivocal: “It will be every man for himself.”

At the end of September, the countdown began, as the five-year alliance between Nidaa Tounes and the formerly outlawed Ennahda came to an end. The details of how it happened are interesting but politically marginal. The bigger issue is why. And the answer lies in how next year’s presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most consequential since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

The political divorce between the two major parties that have steered Tunisia over the past seven years is the starting gun. The race is now on for political parties and candidates to redefine themselves, to change how they have been conducting politics since the revolution. The failure to do would be to be left behind.

The divorce was a long time coming. After the fall of Ben Ali, some Tunisians feared that Ennahda, long banned but with a sizeable following in the country, would seek to rule alone. But Ennahda did not do that. Instead, it formed an alliance with Nidaa Tounes, a party formed mainly from those who had been in power with Ben Ali. For the past five years, the two have worked together – not always well, not always happily, but well enough to have steered Tunisia toward a genuine democratic transition, at a time when the other countries of the Arab Spring faced repression and civil war.

The ending of that alliance two weeks ago was the culmination of a series of small political actions and a more consequential realignment.

The first is that Nidaa Tounes appears to be fragmenting internally and losing support externally. In an enormously controversial move in 2016, Essebsi, the son of the current president, was pushed through as the head of the party. A wave of resignations followed, resulting in the collapse of the party’s vote in this year’s municipal elections to third place, after Ennahda. The real surprise was how independents swept the board, collectively taking 32 percent of the vote and first place.

The second, related issue, has been the rise of the current prime minister, Youssef Chahed. Seen as a centrist – an Emmanuel Macron figure – Chahed is an economist who was not involved in politics until after the revolution. Nominated by Nidaa Tounes to be prime minister, he is now at odds with the leadership, but has the backing of many of those disaffected with that party, as well as with Ennahda.

Those political actions have added up, and at a particularly important moment. For a start, this year’s municipal elections, at which the established political parties lost out to independents, was seen as a bellwether for an electorate tired of corporate politics.

The second is that a new generation is eyeing the presidency. The president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is 91, which is likely why he was willing to risk his party’s objections to install his son in power. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is 77. The party has said that he may contest next year’s presidential elections, but Ennahda – whisper it – has other candidates who may do better.

One increasingly plausible candidate is Souad Abderrahim, elected in June as Tunis’s first female mayor. At 53, and not outwardly religious – she does not wear a headscarf and prefers to talk about transparent government than faith – she could be the sort of candidate to put a modern face on Ennahda’s Islamist past. Although she benefitted from the party machine, she stood for mayor as an independent.

Her trajectory as an activist from a humble background, jailed under Ben Ali, who rose to become the capital’s first mayor not born into wealth is compelling. It is a powerful narrative in a country with too many unemployed young people, and with too many of those enriched and ennobled by the previous regime still around.

A transition moment, then, appears to be coming, when a new generation distances itself from the last, and leaders distance themselves from their parties.

Chahed, the prime minister, has already distanced himself from Nidaa Tounes and could well stand on his own, perhaps as a non-partisan technocrat. During a recent bout of political difficulty, it was Ennahda that backed him, almost certainly to embarrass his political party, but perhaps also out of a calculation that, if both he and Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son, stood for the presidency, it would split the secularist and business-friendly vote.

The younger Essebsi certainly does not cut a captivating figure, too much in his father’s shadow and too beholden to the way of doing politics of the Ben Ali era. A presidential race that pitted him, the son of a politician who not only served the Ben Ali regime, but the presidency of Habib Bourguiba before it, against the technocratic Chahed and, perhaps, a charismatic Islamist politician like Abderrahim, would offer Tunisians a genuine choice of political platforms – and would not be an election in which Essebsi, on current form, would be a favorite.

As the starting gun for next year’s election sounds, it is Essebsi who most needs to distance himself from his party and the previous generation – or he may find his prediction of “every man for himself” leaves him as the last man standing.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.