Open election fosters hopes for Tunisian democracy
Dressed in a traditional robe and surrounded by flag waving supporters, Abdelfattah Mourou greeted shopkeepers and shook hands with passers-by as he campaigned in a poor district of Tunisia’s capital.
A founder of Nahda, the party rooted in the country’s Islamist movement that is also the biggest force in parliament, Mr Mourou is a frontrunner ahead of Sunday’s presidential election and could make the second round of the contest later this year.
“He can unite Tunisians. Nahda has already brought stability to the country,” said Mabrouka Ramdani, a teacher attending the Nahda campaign event in the Tadamon neighbourhood of Tunis.
Yet Mr Mourou is far from the stereotype of an Islamist zealot who wants to impose religious strictures and hardline sharia law on Tunisian society. A moderate lawyer with a sense of humour, he once sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy during a television interview.
His presence on the ballot — Mr Mourou is one of 26 names that voters can pick from — is a reminder of how the north African nation is different from others in the region.
Tunisia is the only example of a successful democratic transition among the Arab nations that rose up against dictatorship in 2011. Voters will in Sunday’s election be presented with a genuine choice, and there is no regime candidate whose victory is a foregone conclusion.
Nahda’s willingness in recent years to compromise with other political forces in Tunisia has helped diminish the polarisation between the Islamists and their secular opponents, according to analysts.
Having agreed to a constitution that does not mention sharia law, Nahda has been a partner in coalition governments with secular parties since 2015. In 2016, its members voted to rebrand as a party of Muslim democrats, shedding the Islamist tag in a move unthinkable elsewhere in the Arab world. This will be the first time it has put forward a presidential candidate.
Mr Mourou’s challengers in Sunday’s vote, which follows the death in July of 92-year old president Beji Caid Essebsi, includes Youssef Chahed, prime minister, and Nabil Karoui, a media tycoon who will stand despite languishing in jail. Kais Saied, a constitutional law expert with no party affiliation, is also a dark horse candidate whose conservatism and anti-corruption message have resonated with many Tunisians.
For Mr Mourou, one benefit of his bid for the presidency, even if he does not win, is that it will “reassure” Tunisians that Nahda is a political party committed to the constitution and not an “ideological” group waiting to pounce on power to change the face of society.
“The era of ideological conflict is gone,” he said at a press conference in the capital this week. “This is the time for social and economic achievement . . . we should not hold up our performance by fake disputes.”
Nahda is also competing in legislative elections next month but, its officials say, even if it does well, they will only govern in a coalition.
But as Tunisia prepares for its second presidential election since the revolution, Mr Mourou and the other candidates are fighting disillusionment among a voting public which feels that politicians of all hues have failed them.
Tunisians are angry about declining living standards in a sluggish economy that has been scarred by political upheavals and terror attacks on tourism. Austerity measures under an IMF programme have led to widespread anger and periodic rioting.
“Tunisians are disappointed because for the last eight years there was basically no progress in their economic condition,” said Youssef Cherif, head of the Columbia Global Center in Tunis, part of Columbia University. “Today’s politicians and candidates are the ones being blamed by the majority of the population.”
He said he expected this disillusionment to be reflected in a lower turnout than in elections held five years ago.
“They all make promises but fail to honour them,” said shopworker Mounira Rafaied as she watched Mr Mourou’s campaign. “We’re suffocating and living off debt. There is an 80 per cent chance I won’t vote.”
A main beneficiary of Tunisians’ disenchantment with their politicians has been Mr Karoui, the wealthy owner of a television station who has been able to tap into the disillusionment. He was arrested last month on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, but as he has not been convicted his name remains on the ballot paper.
Businesswoman Lamia Fourati, who works on his campaign, said he was a “political prisoner” who had been arrested because of his popularity and because his party was poised to “come first” in the parliamentary election.
Mr Karoui has built support among poorer Tunisians through regular TV appearances, where he is often seen doling out charitable donations. His campaign posters show him embracing ordinary citizens and kissing the heads of elderly village women.
“He feels for us [the poor],” said Abdelaziz Welhazy, who works for a security company. “The others do not recognise us.” Mohammed Hazliti, a street vendor, said Mr Karoui should “go straight from prison to the presidential palace.”
But even if the poor state of the economy is weighing heavily on the election, many Tunisians relish their democratic freedoms. There is pride in the TV debates aired this week between the rival presidential candidates.
“Even if the present is miserable we have hope. Ten years ago we faced a dark future under dictatorship,” said Mohamed Mohazaby, a student in Tunis, referring to longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was deposed in 2011. “The revolution has made us optimistic.”