After three years of battles in the streets, in the National Constituent Assembly, and at the ballot box, Tunisia has officially completed its formal transition to democracy—to the acclaim of observers gratified that the Arab Spring kept its promise in at least one country. What is emerging at the end of the process, however, is not a government that is rooted in the revolution and likely to forge ahead with bold reforms, but an uneasy amalgam of old-regime and Islamist politicians, with a few leftist parties and trade unions thrown in for good measure. In other words, the 2011 uprising did not give rise to new political parties or movements. And the young people who played an important part in the protests feel sidelined, at least if their low turnout at the polls is any indication. Nevertheless, this is probably as successful a transition as it was realistic to expect.


The recent parliamentary and presidential elections did not give a clear victory to either the Islamist Ennahda Party or to Nida Tounes, the broad coalition party that was cobbled together for the sole purpose of defeating Ennahda. Nida Tounes’ founder, Beji Caid Essebsi, won the presidential elections with 55.6 percent of the vote; his party won 37 percent of the parliamentary vote and control of 89 of 217 parliamentary seats. But this is not enough to marginalize Ennahda, as many in Nida Tounes would like to do. Ennahda obtained 27 percent of the parliamentary vote and 69 seats, and it will be impossible for Nida Tounes to exclude it from the governing coalition if it wants to create a cabinet backed by a stable majority. Negotiations to form the new government have not yet started, but a preview of the compromises that are likely to be struck has already been offered by the parliament. Reflecting the necessity for power sharing, Nida Tounes and Ennahda agreed that Mohammed Ennaceur of Nida Tounes would become speaker and Abdelfattah Mourou of Ennahda would become deputy speaker.

The outcome of the presidential election also stops short of being a full triumph for Nida Tounes and Essebsi. Outgoing President Moncef Marzouki received 44.3 percent of the vote, a particularly significant result because he is personally unpopular and has a reputation for erratic behavior. His party, the Congress for the Republic, was virtually obliterated in the latest parliamentary elections, going from 29 seats in 2011 to a mere four.

Indeed, in both parliamentary and presidential elections, Tunisians voted as much against a party or candidate as for one. Nida Tounes ran as an alternative to Ennahda, rather than on a clear program or identity of its own. Its main message was that it is the only viable alternative to Ennahda. And most of the voters who chose Marzouki did so in an attempt to deny Essebsi a victory, not because they really wanted Marzouki in power for a second term.

The inconclusive election results will force the parties to work together, which is the best guarantee that Tunisia will continue to function democratically. It is not a guarantee, however, that the government will be able to accomplish much in the way of needed reforms. Tunisia’s political spectrum is truly pluralistic, with significant political forces, including the Islamists, the old regime politicians, and the left, that are too well-rooted in the society to be able to eliminate each other. Under the circumstances, democracy is more a necessity than a free choice. And so Nida Tounes, which argued during the election campaign that Ennahda had to be stopped because it would take Tunisia back into the Dark Ages, will have to govern with it. Nida Tounes officials vehemently deny that they will form an alliance with the Islamist party, but they admit that there will be cooperation, including giving Ennahda some ministerial posts. Ennahda, which was forced to relinquish control of the government in favor of a technocratic cabinet in March 2013 and feared complete exclusion if Nida Tounes won the elections, will remain an indispensable player.


The emerging democratic Tunisia does not represent a revolutionary break with the past. There are hardly any new faces at the top of Tunisian politics. In fact, many are old men who have been in politics for decades. Essebsi, the newly elected president, is 88 and occupied a number of important positions during the Habib Bourguiba presidency (1959-87). Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of Ennahda and now its chairman, is 73. The speaker of the parliament, Ennaceur, is 80 and also held cabinet positions under Bourguiba. One of the parliament’s deputy speakers, Mourou of Ennahda, is also a political veteran but, by comparison, young at 66.

Although old faces abound, Tunisia is not experiencing the restoration of the old regime. What is emerging instead is a new coalition of “Bourguibists” or “Destourians,” that is politicians that trace more or less accurately their political experience back to the Bourguiba period, Islamists, or the left. Essebsi has successfully created a myth of Bourguiba as an enlightened, democratic leader, and service in his presidency has become a badge of democracy. In reality, Bourguiba ruled quite autocratically for almost three decades. Having served under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba’s successor who was forced from power in 2011, does not confirm legitimacy and few openly tout that connection.

Ennahda is still dominated largely by the leaders that launched the organization in 1981, including Ghannouchi and Mourou. Many in that generation were imprisoned for long periods or forced into exile, but emerged again at the forefront of the movement in 2011. There are younger members in the leadership, as well as women, but the imprint of the old generation is deep, particularly that of Ghannouchi, who has influence with both the more moderate and the more radical wings of the organization.

The left, represented both by the labor unions federation (UGTT) and the Popular Front, is also an old component of Tunisian politics which are acquired a new role. The Popular Front, a coalition of far left parties, only received 3.6 percent of the vote but secured 11 seats thanks to an election law favoring small parties. But it is above all the ties between the Popular Front and the UGTT that make the left a power to be reckoned with. The UGTT has street power. In 2011, it played a major role in transforming a local, gruesome protest incident in a small town of the interior into a nation-wide movement, and it was the major player in the quartet of organizations that, in 2013, forced Ennahda to engage in a national dialogue and to turn over power to a new cabinet. The ideas of the Popular Front and the UGTT are old-school left, and are thus alien to both Nida Tounes and Ennahda. But neither party can afford to ignore the organizations, given their proven capacity to mobilize opposition.

By contrast, the new political groups that have emerged since the revolution appear ephemeral. The party with the third largest number of seats in the parliament, The Free Patriotic Union, got much of its support because its founder and leader is a Berlusconi-like wealthy businessmen who owns a major soccer team. He could easily disappear in the next elections, just as other parties that did well in 2011 disappeared in 2014. But Bourguibists, Islamists, and the left are enmeshed in Tunisia and its history. The challenge now is for them is to agree on a cabinet that can govern.

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