A more detailed look at Tunisia's election

Ursula and I have penned a long article for MERIP that looks at the Tunisia elections and breaks down their results. It's been fun to finally have an Arab election where you can put the numbers of the spreadsheet and get some meaning out of the results, since the poll was free and fair and held in a democratic environment  — even if probably it is still an outlier because it was the first one to be.

Elections nerds might want to take a look at my spreadsheet of the results (inside Tunisia only, I omitted overseas voters because there were inconsistencies or errors in the results published on the ISIE website). If anyone is seriously interested, drop me a mail at issandr [AT] arabist.net.

Marzouki = ElBaradei?

Moncef MarzoukiMohamed ElBaradei
David Ignatius' WaPo column yesterday, written from Cairo, highlights two paths for Egypt's transition: the quick passage to a new presidency, or a slower process in which a strong prime minister launches state reforms while a constitution is hammered out around a new political consensus. Most Egyptian presidential candidates, and political parties, have thuis far voiced a preference for option number one, chiefly because it guarantees the quickest transition back to civilian rule. Mohamed ElBaradei, almost alone, has insisted you cannot have a presidential election before a new constitution is written and that the process must take place over a longer period of time to be taken seriously:
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Of Tunisia and Egypt

We were in Tunisia for nearly a week and it was impossible for me not to spend a lot of my time there making comparisons with Egypt. 

It would be hard to find two more different countries than small, Francophone, organized, serious Tunisia and boisterous and chaotic Egypt, a cultural and intellectual hub of Arabism with a population eight times larger. 

But the comparison between the two countries in the Arab world who, through peaceful demonstrations, overthrew their dictators, in nonetheless unavoidable. And, sadly, much to Egypt’s detriment. 

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On Nahda's victory in Tunisia

I am about to leave Tunisia — I'm writing this from the airport — and wanted to write a few thoughts down before I left, as I promised in my post two days ago. It's still not clear what the final results are, as the Election Commission is taking a very long time to count the votes and make sure there are no errors. I don't think any election has been as meticulously scrutinized, ever! But it's clear that Nahda has won a plurality of seats in the constituent assembly — right now they are projected as having won at least 32% of seats, far less than the 47% I was hearing on Monday. I suspect the final result will show them in the low 40s. Even at 32%, they still obtained twice the number of seats as the second party, the CPR.

Now, there are all sorts of allegations floating about. Some say Nahda supporters were told to vote CPR in part, and some hardline secularists view CPR as  a Trojan horse for Nahda. This is a bit much, as CPR also benefited from a strong campaign (or so I've been told) and the personality of longtime dissident Moncef Marzouki.

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Ben Ali in La Goulette

I've written before about Tunisia's great get-out-the-vote initiatives. But the above video shows the best of all. What they did is restore a giant poster of Ben Ali that used to be a landmark of La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis. Passersby are astounded as they see it in the morning, and their stupefaction shifts to anger. They are being filmed by hidden cameras and don't know what's happening. Watch what they do, it's really clever.

A personal note on Tunisia's elections

Graffiti in Ariana, a suburb of Tunis

I have a confession to make: I used to hate Tunisia. I spent some time reporting there in the last decade and had an awful experience, including a fistfight with police informants who were following me at one point. Many others have had similar experiences. But most of all I disliked Tunisia because so many Tunisians I met seemed perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which I thought was because they were partly complicit in their ordeal under Ben Ali.

Of course I met admirable Tunisians: I remember how, at a conference of human rights activists in Casablanca, a Tunisian woman broke down in tears as she told me of the daily humiliations the police subjected her to when she visited her husband in prison. But I thought far too many of her compatriots were silent, and this beautiful country seemed, compared to boisterous Egypt where I lived, dead in the soul. This was no doubt unfair — I was, in part, blaming the victims. I have never had to endure what they were subjected to.

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In Tunis

Ursula and I arrived in Tunis today, and the city is abuzz with electoral excitement. On Sunday, Tunisian will hold the first election of the Arab Spring, to appoint a constituent assembly that should not only write the first constitution, but effectively be parliament for a year. I won't give my impressions now, except to say that after several depressing weeks in Egypt this is a breath of fresh air. It makes you wish Egypt had followed the same transition model. One thing that strikes me is that although there are plenty of malcontents — apparently especially in the inner region that started the uprising last December — in Tunis I sensed real optimism.

It's going to be a little messy, for sure. I am now watching the bizarre spectacle on state TV of candidates being given three-minute video spots to explain their platform. This means for for about five hours a day at peak evening viewing time, TV is dominated by little-known personalities from the some 60 of 110 political parties that are participating (in this country of some 10 million.)

The pictures above are from a show at an art gallery, with young artists doing their own provocative versions of get-out-the-vote posters.

POMED's Guide to Tunisia's elections

Tunisia's elections for a constituent assembly will take place on 23 October, and Ursula and I are headed over to Tunis tomorrow (along with half the Cairo press corps, analysts and election monitors) for a week. The video above is a get-out-the-vote initiative by Tunisian up-and-coming artists, and to read up on the elections themselves, check out POMED's Guide to the Tunisian Elections.

Libya dispatch: Borders (1)

The Tunisia-Libya border

Today we inaugurate a new series of dispatches from Libya by our intrepid war correspondent Abu Ray, who is headed to Tripoli where bored journalists await the final battle.

Coming into Libya again, once again I was greeted by graffiti, but this time it was "God, Gadhafi, Libya and that's it." And in fact that was pretty much it for the spray painted slogans for the whole trip from the Tunisian border to Tripoli. As the Palestinian TV producer I was traveling with pointed out, it was somewhat heartening that God at least came before Gadhafi in this instance.

It was certainly a contrast to the jubiliant, riot of "Libya is free" graffiti on the eastern side that I saw four months ago when I came to cover a nationwide rebellion that has since turned into a stalemated civil war and a cautionary tale for any would be Arab democracy activists.

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Egypt: A new constitution first?

A group of Egyptian NGOs, echoing calls from various political parties and youth groups, have issued a statement backing the Tunisian model of transition, namely that a new constitution should be drafted before parliamentary and presidential elections take place. This is a position that is gaining traction among a lot of people, reflecting in part a lack of trust in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and in part the fear of Islamist-dominated parliament in the next elections.

Although it might still me a minority opinion, I think this activism on the question of when a constitution should come is gaining momentum, and the reasons provided below make a persuasive case. What remains to be argued and fleshed out is how this new constitution would be formed. By an elected or an appointed constituent assembly? By a panel of jurists and selected (presumably by the SCAF) politicians? By representatives of all political parties (legal or not?) and youth groups? These are questions that need answering. 

But, just like yesterday's postponement of the elections for a constituent assembly in Tunisia from July 24 to October 23, it shows that best laid plans can change quickly if deemed necessary. As I've argued before, I don't think the issue of when to have elections is as important as how transparent they are. The Tunisians are delaying theirs to do a proper clearing of the electoral roll. The Egyptians, whether they have elections for parliament or for a constituent assembly, should do the same.

June 9, 2011

In the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution: A Constitution first

Press release

The undersigned human rights organizations call on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to engage constructively with demands from revolutionary forces to reconsider the agenda of the transitional phase and to give priority to the drafting of a new constitution for the country whose provisions will govern the institutions of a democratic regime. The constitution should be followed by presidential and parli

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On when to hold post-revolutionary elections

There has been a debate in Tunisia and Egypt on when elections should be held. In Tunisia, the electoral commission itself suggested that the July 24 elections should be postponed till October, although the interim government has refused to budge. In Egypt, the debate started immediately about when the referendum should be held, although these were ignored, and some persist in asking more time before parliamentary elections are held (they were already postponed from June to September). On both sides of the argument, people have many reasons. Some seem entirely valid to me, and others much less so.

The first reason for postponement is often that early elections will lead to the return of elements of the previous regime. I can understand the worry, but in Tunisia and Egypt, where the ruling parties were dissolved, I don't think there is much of a chance of that happening. The RCD and NDP have been stripped of their assets and are thoroughly discredited. Tunisia went further and barred RCD members for running (Egypt has yet to do something similar, and probably won't.) Some of the same people (notably in the countryside) will be elected under a different party name or as independents, for sure, but a wholesale replacement of the political class was always unrealistic. I'm not too worried about it.

The second reason is because early elections give the advantage to Islamists. Again, I don't think it's a very good reason, and that three months or so won't make a difference. Furthermore, changing the dates on the ground that they benefit a particular party seems plainly wrong to me, particularly as there is an actual urgency is restoring parliament so that it can pass laws, etc. Otherwise you continue to have weak transitional governments (Tunisia and Egypt) and/or military rule (Egypt). Islamists will do much better than they have in the past, the question seems to me to be how to ensure that they operate within a national democratic consensus: i.e. no right to participate in elections unless there is an adherence to common principles: equality for all under the law, rotation of power, etc. Only extreme Islamists like Salafists would be denied the right to participate under such procedures. Tunisia is already doing a better job at that, despite rumors of a coup in the case of a Nahda victory (that would obviously be a disaster).

The third reason is about ensuring a reform of the electoral system before the election. This seems to me to be the most valid reason of them all. Egypt's referendum was held under a system in which it was impossible to ensure that people did not vote twice — staining thumbs with ink simply is not enough. Not enough is being done in both countries to ensure the electoral procedures are beyond reproach, and in Egypt there is too little consultation and transparency on the forthcoming electoral law. The governments of Egypt and Tunisia should be spending much of its time to make sure Egypt has the cleanest, most irreproachable election in its history. Tunisia is off to a better start — both in terms of political consensus and governance — but the incompetent management of the transition by the SCAF (as Sandmonkey points out) puts Egypt is a more uncertain place. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good in the first post-revolution elections in the Arab world, but we have to at least get to good enough. I'm not sure things are there yet.

Tunisia's Nahda and Islamists post-revolutions

There's a good piece on Nahda, the Tunisian Islamist party, by Graham Usher at MERIP which is a good antidote to some of the more alarmist "the Islamists are coming!" stuff:

Compared with other parts of Tunisia’s new political order, however, Nahda looks well placed. Analysts say the movement came out well from the tumult of Tunisia’s second revolution. Its national structure gives it an edge over the dispersal of votes likely to be caused by the spread of new parties. “Nahda has a base,” says the trade unionist Abdelkifi, who is no Islamist. “Tunisians are religious. It will attract those who do not know where to go.” Ghannouchi says if Nahda "gets a 30-35 percent vote for the constituent assembly, we’ll be very happy." Others will be alarmed by such a proportion, and not only in Tunisia. The 35 percent figure is probably hype, say observers, though 25 percent is possible. But the truth is that nobody really knows the depth of Nahda’s base, or that of any other party, due to the extreme de-politicization of Tunisian society during the Ben Ali era.

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Egypt and Tunisia's unfinished revolutions

My column in Time magazine:

It's been just seven weeks since President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and just over three weeks since Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously dumped from the presidency by the Egyptian military — but both countries have already unseated their interim prime ministers. Egypt's Ahmed Shafiq on Wednesday followed last week's decision by Tunisia's Mohammed Ghannouchi to step down, heeding the will of those who had taken to the streets to oust the autocrats who had appointed them. The two countries have chosen different models for their transition to democracy: Tunisia has a civilian government supported by the military; in Egypt, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken charge and has suspended the constitution. But in both countries, the interim rulers face a crisis of legitimacy, with controversy surrounding some of the personalities now in charge and their transition plans contested by many of the same forces that took to the streets to demand political change. And at the same time, they must deal with the mountain of problems left behind by the dictators, from corruption and cronyism to collapsing state authority and anemic economic performance.

I suggest there are four key issues to bear in mind: 

  1. Winning the confidence of the street
  2. The media matters
  3. Islamists stand to gain, but so does the left
  4. There needs to be a balance between justice and economic recovery

Read the whole thing here.

Discontent in Tunisia

A good AJE report on social discontment in Tunisia. A very good example of why it's not enough to change the leaders, the very model of economic distribution has to be changed. Too many Arab countries basically adopted a economic model after decolonization where an elite replaced the old colonial class and the fundamental distribution of wealth remained the same.

Don't forget about Tunisia

I think I forgot to post my long article about Tunisia last week that appeared in The National:

No one knows where Tunisia's revolution is headed. Not ordinary Tunisians who, a fortnight after the departure of their dictator of 23 years, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, are eager for a return to normality and the opportunity to earn a living in what will remain a battered economy. Not the young activists, many of them new to dissent, who express their euphoria on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis's main thoroughfare. Not the wealthy elite, who from their villas in Tunis's lavish suburbs largely welcome the fall of Ben Ali, though they fret about the direction the revolution might take and want to see their factories reopen. And not the politicians and technocrats who - together with one blogger who is a member of the Pirate Party, an international movement of hackers best known for their defence of illegal downloading - form the interim government. Their coalition is tasked with preparing for elections within six months. It may not last that long, at least in its current shape.

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The democration promotion debate, updated

For my money, the most interesting person in think-tank-land working on issues of neo-authoritarianism and democracy promotion is Steve Heydemann. Steve is not only a very nice guy, but also a rare denizen of Washington who doesn't spout conventional wisdom or who doesn't act like a weathervane (like those people who were for democracy in the Arab world in 2005 but then not so hot about it in 2006). He has a very good article up at FP (those guys sure are productive) in which he makes an important point in the democracy promotion debate:

If Arab regimes are learning from and adapting to events in Tunisia, is the Obama administration doing the same? What lessons does Tunisia hold for U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the Arab world? It is early days yet in Tunisia's uncertain path from the breakdown of an authoritarian regime to real democratization. Yet it is already becoming clear that the success of Ben Ali's regime in crushing and fragmenting opposition forces has created enormous obstacles to the construction of a new political order. In so thoroughly dominating a political space, the immediate legacy of Ben Ali's regime -- and a leading threat to its democratic prospects -- is the incoherence and inexperience of his opponents and their flailing attempts to navigate between the Scylla of the old order's restoration and the Charybdis of a descent into chaos that might provoke direct military intervention. If Tunisia is an extreme instance of the weakness of opposition forces, it is hardly alone; other Arab regimes suffer from similar deficits. 

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Tunisia diary: Ammar's move? (2)

Things are still very much up in the air at the moment for the transitional government, especially if two Reuters reports from earlier today are to believed. It's pretty evident public opinion is split between those who want a smooth transition and restoration of order and those who want a clean break with the former regime, most notably the six ministers from the RCD, some of whom were in positions to be either in the loop or directly involved in the corruption the Ben Alis and Trabelsis (and others), such as the minister of finance. But even with those who prioritize a smooth transition and return to normalcy (and I would say, judging from the sheer number of people back on the streets doing their work today — remember a lot of people have been unable to earn for the last two weeks — that is the majority) are not happy with the RCD still not being disbanded. What seems to be happening now is some sort of compromise / negotiation.

Two developments today sent the signal that things may be fast moving. 

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Tunisia diary: Arrival (1)

Where to start? I haven't had time to post much in the last few days — I was transiting through Rome where I had to present a paper on Egypt's NDP and regime fragmentation at the Italian Institute of International Affairs (there were also great papers on the socio-economic situation by Maria-Cristina Pacielo, on the Muslim Brothers by Daniela Pioppi and on Egypt's foreign policy by Philippe Droz-Vincent, all to be published soon) — and then made the enormous sacrifice of not spending a weekend in one of my favorite cities stuffing myself and headed straight to Tunis.

I'll be reporting from here for various publications, but most of it won't be news — it will be long pieces to try and dig deeper into the Tunisian revolution and where it's headed, also providing some historical perspective. I hope to have the time to discuss some of the day to day developments and snapshots of life here. I am self-financing this trip, so if you can help me handle the expenses of operating here, please donate what you can. This blog has run for seven years and barely makes enough money from advertising to pay for hosting expenses, I am self-employed and do not have any institution backing me and picking up the tab for flights, hotels, cars, food, and all the other costs of a reporting trip such as this one. If you've enjoyed The Arabist, it it's proved useful for your research or work, if you like the daily links, and if you want insights from Tunisia that are a little different from the standard journalistic work we've seen so far (much of which is excellent, by the way, but this will be a more personal account), then please consider sending us some baksheesh.

I've only spent two days or so here so far, so obviously the range of people I've met has been limited. What I can say with certainty is the following: Tunisians are incredibly proud of their revolution, as they should be, and that pride is infectious. In conversations one of the themes that comes up again and again is that people feel they can stand tall again after years of submission, their fear has evaporated. Well, perhaps not entirely: they have new concerns now, but these are fears they intend to confront straight on: the country's economic situation, the risk that elements of the former regime will make a return (whether at the level of the cabinet with the RCD ministers, or more problematically, with the party structure across the country), the risk that what so far has been a revolution remarkable for its orderliness may become more chaotic, and the risk of foreign interference (whether Arab or Western).

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