Electoral Politics in Tunisia: A Panel Discussion
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 7:00pm
Electoral Politics in Tunisia: A Panel Discussion

Smith Memorial Student Union, room 296, 1825 SW Broadway


A discussion of Tunisia’s first post-transition election following the ratification of its constitution by the constituent assembly, featuring Lindsay Benstead, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Portland State University; Mohamed Daoud, Professor of Applied Linguistics, Institut Spérieur des Langues de Tunis, Tunisia, and Fulbright Fellow, Department of Applied Linguistics, Portland State University; and Keith Walters, Professor of Applied Linguistics, Portland State University.


Professor Keith Walters opened the event with an accessible and thought-provoking historical overview of Tunisia. Walters first lived in Tunisia as a peace corps volunteer in 1975. He highlighted the diverse legacy of the country that entwines numerous ancestries and influences including Berber, Phoenician, Roman, Vandal, Arab, Muslim, Ottoman Turk, Maltese, Italian and French.

Today, however, Tunisia is the most ethnically and religiously homogenous country in the Arab Muslim world, with over 98% of the population identifying as Sunni Muslim Arabs. The role of Islam in public life and government has been heavily contested since Tunisia’s independence. Tunisia’s first and longtime leader Habib Bourguiba advanced women’s rights but also drew heavy criticism when he defied the Ramadan fast on national television, claiming that it slowed economic productivity. Ben Ali, who replaced Bourguiba by bloodless coup in 1987, ruthlessly repressed criticism of his regime from all points of the political spectrum. Rashid al-Ranoushi, an Islamist exiled in 1988, has now returned to Tunisia to head the leading Ennahda party. Ennahda won sweeping victories in the elections, but has since been accused of replicating the authoritarian behavior of the previous regime.

Walters closed his introductory remarks with a quote from a recent New York Times article by Kareem Fahim, composed in response to the recent assassination of politician Chokri Belaid (the first assassination in Tunisia since the 1950s). Fahim quotes the president of Tunis-based Arab Institute for Human Rights, Abdulbasset Belhassan, who says of the Islamists: “They should take an historical decision: the revolution is not made by one party.”

Mohammad Daoud next gave a detailed breakdown of the parties that won seats in the new constituent assembly convened nine months after the October 23, 2010 Jasmine Revolution. The constituent assembly includes 217 members, 109 of which are needed to form a simple majority. There must be at least ten members in order to form a group within the assembly. Others may remain independent. There are eight groups at the moment, of which the top three make a simple majority. Ennahda is currently the largest group, holding 89 seats. In conjunction with the second and third groups, Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic, they achieve the simple majority and constitute the governing coalition. Among the other groups in the assembly are: the Democratic Group (a collection of opposition figures with several affiliations), the Independent, Liberty and Dignity, and Wafa (Loyalty). Not all of these minor groups are oppositional – many members are pro-coalition. This means, essentially, that they are pro-revolution and reject collaboration with the old guard, or vestiges of the former regime. Over a hundred parties now exist in Tunisia and cycle through bloc allegiances, called democratic electoral fronts, which are often dissolving and reforming in relation to various issues.

Dr. Lindsey Benstead from the Political Science department next addressed the narrative of ‘secularists versus Islamists’ that many have used to characterize the current political state of both Tunisia and Egypt. In October and November of 2012, Dr. Benstead headed a survey of the Tunisia electorate that was carried out in tandem with a parallel study of the Egyptian electorate. A forthcoming article in the magazine Foreign Affairs presents the findings of Benstead and her colleagues.

Dr. Benstead’s portion of the lecture set out to refute the monolithic portrayal of post-Arab Spring politics as ‘the Islamic winter.’ By categorizing society into two essentialist forces of Islamism versus secularism, or democracy versus non-democracy, Western media (and sometimes Arab media as well) generates a simplistic and inaccurate picture of transitional politics in Egypt and Tunisia. According to Benstead, the most important factor influencing the outcome for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt is the strength of institutions, not public support for Islamic parties. According to this logic, Benstead predicted that Tunisia will reach democracy more quickly and easily thanks to its relative strength of institutions compared to Egypt.

Dr. Benstead presented three prevalent myths of Islamist politics and addressed each in relation to recent polling results from both Tunisia and Egypt. The first myth contends that transitions in the Arab world are best understood as ‘hotly contested battles’ between Islamists and secularists. In fact, a minority of both Tunisians and Egyptians agreed that religious leaders should influence government. Even among those who voted for Islamists parties, only a minority thought that religion should play a significant role in politics.

The second myth asserts that Islamists did well in elections because the Tunisian and Egyptian people wish to reject democracy. In both countries eighty percent of the poll participants supported democracy. The Islamists’ success can instead be attributed to effective campaigning. They had four times as many party members, and at least twice as many volunteers as any other party. Due to this effective campaigning, poll participants reported that they were much more confident in the social and economic position of the Islamist parties. The cohesion and relatively clear platform of the Islamists stands in contrast with the other end of the spectrum where one finds a proliferation of indistinct parties that frequently change grouping or name and often rally around a single individual rather than wide-reaching base of public support.

The third myth suggests that the Islamists will lose support once in power, and this is the best hope for democracy. The polling data disproves this notion: among decided voters an increased number reported their intention to vote for Islamist parties both in Tunisia and Egypt, showing that the Islamist parties have largely maintained their base. In Tunisia, there is also some significant support for Nida Tunis which includes figures from the former government. Benstead explained this as a standard aspect of the politics of transition. A certain nostalgia and regret results from the negative impacts of such political upheaval, causing people reach for the familiarity of the past.

Benstead concluded that Tunisia and Egypt will involve different outcomes because of the differing strengths of their institutions, not their underlying religiosity. Statistics for personal faith are about the same in both countries, although Tunisia generally has less faith in the public sphere because of the secularist politics of long-time dictators Bourguiba and Ben Ali. More importantly, Tunisia has the constituent assembly and trade unions to serve as conduits of debate. Therefore contestation is hosted by trade unions who are able to direct energy towards general strikes, instead of it becoming frustration on the streets. In Tunisia the most difficult aspects of the constitution were negotiated by the constituent assembly and its committees, whereas in Egypt parliament walked out on the process because they perceived the constitution to be dictated by external agents. There is clearly a broader problem with outside parties intervening in Egyptian institutions in a manner that stunts democracy: the judiciary voted that the constituent assembly was not lawful, and the military has influenced key provisions to the constitution in order to retain power. In addition, Egypt’s strategic qualities of being large, populous, and close to Israel generate greater external pressures on its politics.

Benstead concluded that the international community needs to have less fear and sensationalizing of Islamist parties and instead concentrate on bolstering institutions and economic reforms.

This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Sara Swetzoff.


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Additional Resources

Islamists Aren't the Obstacle: How to Build Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia, Foreign Affairs, February 14, 2013


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