Tunisia: Election result points to new struggles

November 5, 2011

On election night in Tunisia, as it became clear that moderate Islamist party Ennahda had won most seats in the Constituent Assembly and would be forming government, many Tunisians feared for the revolutionary struggle that has continued since the uprising that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January.

In the final count, Ennahda received just under 37% of the popular vote, and won 90 seats out of the 217-member assembly. The next largest vote was won by the centre-left Congress for the Republic Party (CPR), with 30 seats.

Spontaneous demonstrations broke out; some democracy activists protested against widespread suspicions of violations of electoral law by Ennahda during the elections.

Official statements blamed some of these problems on the high voter turnout; of 4.4 million registered voters, about 3.85 million cast their ballots.

However, many Tunisians did not register before election day. The real turnout was just over half of the 7.5 million eligible voters.

Issues with voter registration on election day led to some Tunisians being shuffled from office to office until after polls had closed.

In the days after October 23, Ennahda announced it would be seeking to form coalition with secular parties, including the secular CPR and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (Ettakatol).

Negotiations between the parties for a coalition government were expected to be completed within a week; the new government will rule for no more than 12 months while the Constituent Assembly drafts a new constitution.

Concerns about Ennahda's agenda for the new constitution, as well as the ongoing restriction of freedoms by religious figures and the state since the ousting of Ben Ali, led to widespread protest marches in the lead-up to the election under the slogan “A3ta9ni” (leave me alone).

On November 2, about 200 women demonstrated to demand their rights be protected under Ennahda, as well as to condemn recent violence by conservative Salafist groups.

Tunisia's laws on women's rights are considered to be the most advanced in the Arab world.

“Everyone together for our rights,” the women chanted, according to Associated Press reports. “Our dignity is in the preservation of our rights.”

The town where Tunisia's uprising against Ben Ali began in December, Sidi Bouzid, was the scene of days of huge protests after the election results ― and the disqualification of the Popular Petition party (Aridha Chaabia) for violations of electoral funding laws.

A crowd set fire to an Ennahda office and the office of the mayor, Reuters said, before the protests were dispersed by police and a curfew was implemented.

Aridha Chaabia's leader Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, a London-based businessman who owns the TV network al-Mustakillah, was a member of Ennahda until his resignation in 1992. Sidi Bouzid is his home town; Aridha Chaabia won 56% of the popular vote there, more than double Ennahda's 23%.

AFP reported that complaints were also filed against Aridha Chaabia for allowing former members of Ben Ali's RCD party to stand as candidates.

Ennahda's move to form a coalition with centre-left and secular parties, as well as public statements, show that it is more concerned with the appearance of legitimacy than advancing the cause of political Islam in the assembly.

This also fits with Ennahda's statements since the elections. It reassured Tunisians it would not repeal laws protecting the rights of women and called for an end to protests.

It also moved to reassure international capital that Tunisia's situation would stabilise, visiting the Tunisian stock exchange upon its victory, the Wall Street Journal said on November 4.

Ennahda told Reuters it would seek to liberalise the Tunisian dinar to be fully convertible with foreign currency.

A key part of Ennahda's victory was that it was seen as supportive of the revolution. Its members were repressed and jailed as dissidents by the Ben Ali regime.

Ayoub Amar, a member of the Communist Worker's Party (PCOT) told Tunisia Live on November 2: “People believed Ennahda will get rid of corruption in the administration and at all levels.”

Ennahda is likely to seek to put the lid back on Tunisia's revolutionary movement during the next 12 months ― to put an end to the strikes and mass demonstrations undermining stablity. But doing so will undermine their own legitimacy in the eyes of those who rose up against Ben Ali.

For the moment, Tunisia's revolutionary struggle continues.

Strikes and protests have continued. Airport, postal and oil sector workers have all held strikes in recent days. Employees of the Brewery and Refrigeration Company of Tunis (SFBT) started a strike on October 31, reported Tunisia Live.

Tunisian activists have also been building on a campaign to review and cancel debts incurred by Ben Ali's regime, and to suspend debt service payments in the interim.

The new parties of government have signalled they support a review. However, Ennahda has refused to suspend debt repayments.

The new government will have to tread carefully.

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