Nothing will stick more in the minds of voters in Tunisia’s presidential election of November 23 than the nickname “Bajbouj”. It is today the most uttered term of endearment referring to 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a seasoned politician, and the closest thing Tunisians have to a presidential frontrunner. He is the oldest presidential candidate in a nascent democracy in new Tunisia.
The irony in all of this, he seems to be the favourite to win.
Since Nidaa Tounes’s victory in the parliamentary election of November 23, “Beji mania” has gripped Tunisia. A giant billboard in perfect “Tunisois” dialect (Tunis-based slang laced with French words) reads “hayya sawwit lil-bajbouji, khalli libled tbouji“. A catchy electoral phrase, easily understood by the lay voter, enlists citizens’ support, more or less along the lines of “vote for Bajbouj, make the country move forward”.
Here lies the biggest secret weapon of Nidaa Tounes and its elder statesman: speaking the language of the multitude, which any Tunisian can readily understand. This, along with the quasi Bourguiba-speak smokescreen, a populist device that lures voters in the populous northern and coastal cities of the country, have helped the charismatic Essebsi ride on a wave of popularity unprecedented since the 2011 revolution.
In the race to elect Tunisia’s fifth president, there is more than one puzzle that beguiles. Essebsi, as the latest reincarnation of the Bourguiba style, seems to blind Tunisians to the instability of the last years of the country’s father of independence: senility, misrule, and incessant obsession with succession. Bajbouj may today be popular, kindling nostalgia to the vigorous early years and certainties of Bourguiba’s political know-how and socio-cultural renewal.
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Tomorrow, however, if elected to the highest office in the land, Essebsi will bring to the presidency worries over his rumoured ill-health and rivalry over succession – not to mention the return to political centre-stage of old associates of Ben Ali.
Another puzzle regards the fact that had it not been for the ballot and the democratic constitution governing the multi-candidate presidential election, one would be forgiven to think that nothing seems to remain of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. Except one thing: orderly practice of political participation and contestation in what thus far has been a troubled and yet sustainable process of democratic transition – the only one of its kind in the Arab Spring geography.
No one stands out as particularly revolutionary among the 23 presidential wannabes in Tunisia. “Bajbouj” and revolution do not go hand in hand. Nor do revolution and his most serious rival in the presidential race, the incumbent, 69-year-old Moncef Marzouki. By any standards, however, Marzouki, who made his stamp on the country’s politics through alliance with the Islamists and dissidence on behalf of human rights, comes across as a “radical” by comparison.
Despite favourable ratings, the election will not be a cakewalk for Essebsi. There could be a second round on December 28 – head-to-head between Essebsi and Marzouki. Some expect Tunisia’s women to opt for former dissident magistrate Kalthoum Kannou, the only female presidential hopeful, but the race is not expected to be upended by Kannou as its dark horse.
In a true electoral sense, the race’s dark horse is 42-year-old Slim Riahi, the self-made billionaire – berated by many for alleged past business association with Libya’s former ruling house, the Gaddafi family. He can rely more on football fans’ support than can Kannou on that of female voters, many of whom may already have partisan loyalties that cannot be easily switched when voting on November 23.
Riahi has since 2012 owned Tunisia’s second biggest and most successful top division football team (Club Africain). Already he surprised political pundits by his party, Free Patriotic Union, coming third in last month’s parliamentary election (winning 16 seats, one more than the leftist Popular Front of presidential candidate Hamma Hammami). Riahi can rely on money, publicity and a popular football team to propel him into the presidency. This is unlikely. Financial largesse is no solution to his lacklustre demeanour.
There are two key takeaways. The first is that as the race tightens in the coming days, Marzouki can increasingly rely on the vote of shocked Nahda Party members whose biggest fear after defeat in the parliamentary election in October is to see former Ben Ali associates and anti-Islamist leftists, from Nidaa Tounes, winning the presidency. Likewise, members of the so-called Destourian Movement, adherents and campaigners of Bourguiba’s politics, will rally around Essebsi.
The second is that if the country’s political culture is any guide, Tunisia’s next president will hail from a Beldi (urban bourgeoisie of Tunis), and not an Afaqi (provincial) background, have a modernist outlook, and his politics will favour incremental reform via evolution, not revolution.
Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.