New Internationalist

Tunisia votes: the medicine of democracy


Campaign posters for the October 23 elections. Photo by Bellyglad under a CC Licence.


There are endless ways of reading Tunisia’s elections, the country’s first test of upgrading revolution into institution. The medical profession has produced three leaders who, with their General Practitioner savoire faire, have helped eased the country into democratic apprenticeship. But do they have enough medicine to revive a body-politic weakened by 23 years of authoritarian rule?

The Tunisia elections for the National Constituent Assembly on 23 October 2011 constituted the North African country’s first democratic act. The elections were stunning in terms of the results, peaceful nature, and festive atmosphere. Things went mostly without a hitch (excluding the Popular Manifesto’s fiasco which saw it lose six seats allegedly won through use of foreign funding and/or publicity).

Three leading political figures with medical backgrounds aided the delivery of the Arab Spring’s first ‘baby’: a popularly and democratically elected 217-member National Constituent Assembly in which the Islamist Nahda Party (NP) has 90 seats.

This democratic test was arguably made easier because the political leadership is enriched by professional talent and know-how. The leader of the Congress for the Republic (CR), Moncef Marzouqi, known for years for his human rights work, was a trained medical doctor. So was Mustafa bin Jaafar, the leader of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL) known by the abbreviation, Ettakattol. Nejib Al-Chebbi, whose Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) did not do as well as the CR and FDTL, has a combined training in medicine and law.

Between them, the three doctors’ centrist-liberal parties won 68 seats. There is no doctrinaire content to the politics of these three leaders – all of whom made their names in resisting Bin Ali’s dictatorship from within Tunisia. The exception is Dr Marzouqi who spent several years since the early 1990s in exile. All three are regarded as safe hands when it comes to helping with the effort of transition.

This they did by providing a dose of professionalism to Tunisia’s democratic apprenticeship. These leaders who represent the most important political bloc to reshape Tunisia after the NP all rushed to accept the results and congratulate Nahda.

Moreover, their discourse does not seek denigration or exclusion of the NP. To the contrary, with the qualified exception of Dr Al-Chebbi, both Marzouqi and bin Jaafar, have developed a strong rapport with the NP’s president, Rachid Ghannoushi, with the three leaders remaining amicable during the election campaign where the first seeds of coalition-building were sown. And they are certain to come to fruition in the process of forming a national unity government whose key figures will come from the NP, CR, and FDTL.

A great deal of this consensus-building approach is embedded in Tunisia’s political culture. Maya Jeribi, the impressive PDP Secretary-General along with Dr Al-Chebbi, who in the past lent support to the NP against the brutality exercised by the ousted Bin Ali regime, never excluded the NP. Dr Al-Chebbi shared the 18 October moral protest movement with the Islamist party.

Al-Chebbi’s main flaw was his paranoia over the Islamists’ quick rise to political stardom during the post-Bin Ali transition period and notably during the election campaign, causing him to make several tactical mistakes. In particular, he was accused of insensitivity in his support of the right of Nesma TV to air a programme denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.

The key lesson of these elections is that a workshop has been opened up for democracy-learning. The presence of a professional political class to help in such a process matters in Tunisia as well as in the other Arab Spring states, Egypt and Libya. This professionalism, along with the consensual, ethical tool-kit, presents Tunisia with the medicine of democracy.

The composition of the Constituent Assembly is diverse and women occupy one-quarter of the people’s house. This dynamic bodes well for further empowerment of women and for Tunisia’s dynamic female population that was visible and proactive in the ousting of Bin Ali and the engineering of Tunisia’s people-power revolution.

Thus far the Tunisian people have spoken in favour of democratic change. With the competent leadership of the three good doctors from three liberal political parties, the country’s body-politic already seems to be on the mend.

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  1. #1 loutfi slim 10 Nov 11

    Nahda will not know anything about real state and power in the state. God help Tunisia.

  2. #2 douda16 10 Nov 11

    Nahda party has been one of the best organized political parties in the run up for the October elections in Tunisia. Moreover, as one of the most oppressed movements during the Ben Ali era its leaders and members know what use and abuse of power means. I don't think they will want to repeat the same mistakes under which they've been suffering for so many years. The elections for the constitutional assembly have shown that a large part of Tunisia's citizens do trust in Nahda and its ability to prepare a better future for their country. What has to be acknowledged further is the fact that Nahda will not be able to take decisions alone. The assembly is composed of different parties and individuals with different ideologies and viewpoints, thus it will be necessary that its members work together in consensus. Last but not least excluding the Islamists from the political scene as has been done in the last years in Tunisia as elsewhere in the Middle East would only lead to their radicalization. They deserve to be included in the political decision-making process as any other political force.

  3. #3 Jay 12 Nov 11

    Tunisia's elections have created the physical space for many Tunisians to take part in a process that is geared ultimately towards the construction of the institutions of power. Unquestionably it is nothing less than democratic participation for a nation long deprived from speaking or acting as free individuals or society. The political parties that contested the elections testify to the consensus-building nature of the democratic 'experiment' during the Arab Spring as it continues to unfold at different speeds across the region. Tunisia will be a laboratory in the quest to discover a new way of doing politics in the Arab world that involves local actors. And that of course includes Islamists like Nahda too.

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