I recently returned from a short trip to Tunis, where I had the chance to check in with a variety of folks about the current political scene. I met with senior members of both Nedaa Tounis and the Ennahda movement (including Rached Ghannouchi), along with a variety of journalists and civil society activists. I was particularly interested in exploring the role of the media in post-uprising Tunisia, for a paper I'll be circulating soon (spoiler: like in Egypt, it's played an extremely negative role).
But I was also keen to look for answers to a question which has been nagging at me ever since last month's Nedaa Tounes victory in the Parliamentary elections: why doesn't anyone seem to be as worried by the prospect of Nedaa Tounes "dominating" Tunisan politics as they were by the prospect of Ennahda "domination"? Or is that only for Islamists? Should Nedaa be looking to form an inclusive coalition rather than governing from one side of a polarized public? Should Ennahda be worried that an explicitly anti-Islamist government would try to crush it Ben Ali or Sisi-style?
After years of the world's agonizing over the prospects of its domination, Ennahda chose to not field a candidate in the upcoming Presidential election (if only Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood had done the same), and surrendered the Prime Minister position in the face of an intense political crisis earlier this year. But Nedaa has done nothing of the sort. After winning the Parliamentary election, its candidate Beji Caid el-Sibsi is a shaky frontrunner to win the November 23 Presidential election. His victory would give Nedaa control over both the legislative and executive branches, with likely support for any sort of anti-Islamist agenda forthcoming from the unreformed judiciary. Shouldn't everyone be worried about one side of a polarized political arena poised to potentially dominate all branches of government in a fragile democratic transition?
The most common answer I heard in my conversations was that nobody believed that Nedaa could hold itself together long enough to actually dominate. They pointed to the tensions between different parts of the Nedaa coalition, which includes both fervently anti-Islamist leftists and a neoliberal capitalist elites. Nedaa won only a narrow Parliamentary victory, and will have to form a coalition of some kind to govern. With only Sebsi and hatred of Ennahda holding Nedaa together, there would be no ideological consensus to impose upon Tunisia and numerous opportunities for the new party to fragment and turn upon itself. With Ennahda defeated, or if Sebsi passes from the scene, most seem to believe that the Nedaa coalition will fall apart and normal politics will ensue.
Ghannouchi, and the other Ennahda leaders with whom I spoke, seemed remarkably sanguine about the developments. They focused relentlessly on the underlying unity of Tunisian society and the irreversibility of the changes wrought by the 2011 revolution, and sought to position themselves as the defenders of the democratic process and the gains of the revolution. They explained their electoral losses as the inevitable result of bearing the blame for failing to meet the sky-high expectations of the post-uprising Tunisian public. They worried about polarization, and some spoke with shock about last year's intense public antipathy, but seemed to believe that the worst of that moment had passed since the January transfer of power to a technocratic government. They emphasized their efforts to stop the polarization, and pointed with pride to the new constitution which they believe ended the ideological and identity component of Tunisia's political battles.
So should we be worried about Nedaa domination of Tunisian politics? I heard people on both sides pointing to the mutual recognition of the reality of a political balance of power in the country, which forces both sides to recognize their inability to ignore or destroy the other. Many reject the reduction of Tunisian politics to the Islamist/anti-Islamist framing, pointing to a much broader range of local and national issues driving the agenda. A lot of Tunisians seem to be quite relieved that they escaped Egypt's fate; "normal politics" might not be such a terrible thing, given how things have gone elsewhere. Ghannouchi and Sebsi seem to have a decent level of personal respect and trust, which might or might not be shared more widely in their respective parties. And on all sides I heard frequent arguments that Tunisia's people and civil society would never allow a return to a one-party state.
Let's hope that they are right. Because the region's history is full of "temporary" leaders with shaky coalitions who managed to secure their position atop the machinery of the state and last a lot longer than expected. Manufactured hatred of Islamism might go a long way in the current regional environment, and there's certainly plenty of regional support (and Gulf cash) out there right now for leaders willing to take on the job of repressing Islamists. Tunisia was (mis-)ruled for decades as one the fiercest anti-Islamist authoritarian regimes around, so there's a precedent. Tunisia's revolution deserves better than that, and I sure hope they get it.