Tunisia’s elections: Sidi Bouzid speaks out

Tunisia has begun its transition to democracy, but not all parties played by the rules.

Tunisia Protests
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid sparked a revolution that led to the historic poll [GALLO/GETTY]

There were fresh surprises on Thursday evening when the official results from Tunisia’s 2011 Constituent Assembly were released by Kemal Jendoubi.

Mr Jendoubi, the chief of Tunisia’s Independent Electoral Commission, declared the vote null in seven seats won by the Popular Manifesto party. The reaction among the Manifesto’s supporters was quick. They burnt the Ennahdha’s headquarters and attacked municipality buildings.

The commission redistributed the votes in the seven seats where there was evidence of foreign funding. This particularly benefited Ennahdha in Sidi Bouzid.

The decision related to articles in the 2011 elections law. There were additional violations of the electoral code regarding publicity on the day of polling that were noted when the results were released, but these were not serious enough to nullify any seats.

Being a professional, and one of the key stars of these elections, Mr Jendoubi did not hesitate to declare the Popular Manifesto’s seven seats null. The good thing was that the Popular Manifesto had five days to appeal the decision.

There is only one issue. The Popular Movement’s heartland is Sidi Bouzid – where Tunisia’s revolution was sparked in December 2010. It is Sidi Bouzid where the manifesto’s president and sponsor has wide support, especially among the clans there.

The view from Bouazizi’s town

Looking from Sidi Bouzid in the south of Tunisia to northern Tunis discloses differing perspectives on the nation’s elections. There is no media interest down south. Though back in December and January, Sidi Bouzid was a very different scene.

Some 315 days after Mohamed Bouazizi triggered an Arab political tsunami from this historically marginal town, Sidi Bouzid surprised the world once again. This time it struck back at the centre of power with the voice of the excluded, giving birth to the newest kid on Tunisia’s political block, an independent list sponsored by a London-based politician and media proprietor originating from Sidi Bouzid, Dr Mohamed al-Hachmi al-Hamdi.

Back in January 2011 the excluded of Sidi Bouzid, infecting the rest of Tunisia with their struggle, were credited with delivering Tunisia’s revolution. To do that, they had to face the bullets.

In the elections the same excluded people instead confronted the ballot. To do this, they organised and mobilised, creating a list, the Popular Manifesto for Freedom, Justice and Development [Al’-Arida Al-Sha’biyya Li Al-Hurriyya wa Al-‘Adalah wa Al-Tanmiyah].

Sound familiar? It is loaded with the catchphrase of Turkey’s AKP. At the same time, it is laden with hidden meanings. It makes sense only when put into the context of the list being the brainchild of an individual whose early political training was inside Ennahdha, Tunisia’s soon-to-be ruling party – whose share of the public vote delivers a new era in the country’s politics.

Al-Hamdi had been a key figure in Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahdha. Note how the party makes use of the same catchphrase in its electoral programme: freedom, justice and development. These are declared to be both means and ends in the quest for a civil state [dawlah madaniyyah].

Why change a political branding that has proved its utility elsewhere?  It has in the past served the AKP in Turkey, today Ennahdha and the Popular Manifesto in Tunisia, and probably tomorrow the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt.

This phrase is the discursive and a political signifier of an emerging civic Islam, riding on the cusp of a revolutionary-democratic current. Literally, a political manifesto with many a translation, in a variety of temporal and spatial contexts.

The ‘simple message’

The Popular Manifesto is a populist party with a simple message. The party’s activists display no sophistication of any kind. Their language reveals no hidden agendas. If that is at all possible in politics.

The man who headed its list, Mohamed al-Hamdi, brother of the party’s founder, says the party embodies practicality. This is, in a way, how the AKP’s famous phrase is being localised, communicated and packaged to the excluded within and outside Sidi Bouzid.

When I met Mohamed al-Hamdi with my students three days ago we were told the manifesto won five seats and were close to securing a sixth. In fact, his party had secured only three seats in Sidi Bouzid when we met them. Two of the winners were women. The Popular Manifesto list displayed gender parity, with four male and four female candidates.

By any standards, the short-lived victory before the seats were rendered null was a stunning victory. The list was constructed by a Tunisian expatriate with much political cunning, know-how and money. Whether simplistic or not, the branding worked. How could a list of candidates that no-one had heard of six months ago pull off such a stunning victory? How could it displace Nejib Chebbi’s established party from their standing behind Moncef Bin Jaafar’s Etakattol, and end up being ranked the fourth political force (with 19 seats after the seven were rendered null) – behind the Rally for the Republic and Ennahdha?

There are of course no easy answers, and definitely none right now.

Populism wins votes?

The Popular Manifesto is drenched in populism. The victory seems to have stunned all, not least the Ennahdha party. One of Ennahdha’s own rebellious sons returned to contest them, just as he and the party’s leaders had for years dismissed one another and engaged in mud-slinging.

The list’s sponsor and author, Dr Al-Hachmi, is accused of hypocrisy and opportunism by Nahda’s members and leaders as well as by Tunisian human rights activists. They allege he flirted with their most morbid enemy of all, the ousted president – a liaison whose more embarrassing episodes – when Dr Hachmi is alleged to have “sold out” to Ben Ali – have reportedly been documented by Ennahdha members.

There are additional accusations that the vote in some seats collected by the Manifesto came from members of the former ruling party. In addition, many note that Dr Hachmi has no record of field struggle within Tunisia for the larger part of Ben Ali’s rule, having been living outside Tunisia for the past 25 years. This is not, by the way, exclusive to Dr Hachmi.

Regardless, voters in many constituencies did not either know or care for the past of the Popular Manifesto’s founder. They voted for the simplicity and clarity of the political message. The message was formed of six points: a democratic constitution, unemployment benefits, an injustice commission, free health service, free transport for the aged, and a ministry for Tunisian migrants.

During a meeting in Sidi Bouzid, my University of Exeter students and I quizzed Mohamed Hamdi about funding the welfare programme that won the Popular Manifesto more seats than Hamma Hammami – an avowed communist who spent many years in jail during Ben Ali’s rule.

Hamdi gave no convincing answers; but in fairness to him, nor did other more experienced and sophisticated politicians in Tunisia. However, the idea of 200 dinars a month as unemployment benefit, suggested by the Manifesto in a country where thousands of existing employees do not receive 100 dinars is somewhat far-fetched.

Dr Hachmi’s Manifesto

The Popular Manifesto list clearly reveals two things: first, there is still a place in Tunisia’s politics for a political force to address issues of social justice. This is why the unemployed and the politically lay person voted for the list. In Sidi Bouzid, however, many did not vote for the Popular Manifesto where tribal solidarity benefited the independent list in Bouazizi’s town.

Secondly, Dr Hachmi has ambitions for the presidency – and this may explain his invention of the Popular Manifesto. This is stated clearly in the statement of the list’s political objectives.

But Dr Hachmi’s campaign for the presidency might have gone down with the flames that burnt the Ennahdha party’s headquarters. Dr Hachmi should have known better. With his British doctoral education, cunning and media experience, he should have resorted to appeal mechanisms that Jendoubi’s commission has made available to lists wishing to contest the final results. The petulance to withdraw from the Constituent Assembly is a knee-jerk reaction unwarranted by someone who sees himself as a democrat.

In Sidi Bouzid, cafe-goers are not waiting for a local president to solve the existing marginalisation and disenfranchisement. They are waiting for a serious and fair government after these elections. Bouazizi’s peers in these cafes talk about “a second revolution”. The disturbances last night in Sidi Bouzid point to the fact that the excluded will continue to be a huge challenge for the newly elected administration.

Elections and the Arab Spring

In a country whose revolution was partly the gift of social media, it was puzzling as to why Jendoubi’s commission relied on manual counting. In this instance, however, this has already proved to be useful.

The drip-feed of results has – without any official design by the commission – proved its brilliance in these elections. In my view, it helped Tunisians gradually absorb the new reality of Islamist victory at the polls. In particular, secularists have accepted the victory in stages, swallowing the bitter pill of their defeat and Ennahdha’s convincing victory as the price of commitment to fair democratic play.

It is wonderful that, on this occasion, the electronic side of these elections was not up to scratch. No one had to contemplate the scenario of quick results on the evening of the October 23, when counting began.

Regardless of the disturbances in Sidi Bouzid, Jendoubi must be credited with the success of these elections, which inaugurate the institutional transition in Tunisia and the Arab Spring states.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

He has also published with Brieg Powell, EU-Tunisia Relations: Democratization via Association (Routledge 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.