Weekly Standard Features Piece by IRI Observer Max Boot on Tunisia’s Elections

Tunisia Stands Alone
The Weekly Standard
By Max Boot

Who knew being an election observer was such hard work? When the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit, U.S. government-funded organization devoted to democracy promotion, invited me to serve on its team watching Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on October 26, I imagined myself lolling by a Mediterranean beach, sipping a café au lait, with a short break in the middle of the day to ascertain, yup, Tunisians are going to the polls. The reality was several days of nonstop meetings with Tunisian politicos, nongovernmental organizations, and election officials, both in the capital, Tunis, and in Jendouba, a governorate in the northwest near the border with Algeria.

On Sunday, election day, I got up at 5:15 a.m. and, with the rest of my team (an IRI staff member, local translator, and driver), set off, bleary-eyed, to observe preparations before voting booths opened at 7 a.m. We spent the rest of the day driving from polling place to polling place to see if balloting was being carried out by the book. The polls finally closed at 6 p.m., but our job was not yet done—we spent the next three hours locked in a small schoolroom that doubled as an election station, watching as four officials laboriously counted more than 450 ballots by hand.

Everywhere we went, we inquired about election chicanery. We found none. The violations reported to us were laughably minor—for example, some campaign posters being displayed in violation of Tunisian law, which strictly limits the size and location of such advertising. Although there were fears that Ansar al Sharia militants would try to disrupt voting, there was not one terrorist attack in the country. More than 60 percent of the 5.2 million registered voters turned out—not the highest figure possible but still a stirring sight: so many people who had spent their lives under a dictatorship exercising rights that we in the West take for granted.

That the election was so free and fair is impressive enough—remember how dishonest voting was in places like Chicago and Newark not so long ago? Tunisia’s achievement was all the more remarkable considering that there is not one peaceful and democratic state in the entire Arab world. (Iraq is sort of democratic but violent.)

Tunisia has been showing the path toward Arab democracy ever since a 26-year-old fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, to protest the harassment he had suffered from heavy-handed government officials. His death set off a month of protests that brought down longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. That triggered antigovernment protests that shook the entire region. In Libya and Syria, the result was perpetual war; in Egypt, the rise of a new dictatorship. Only Tunisia has continued to stumble toward self-government.

The first free elections, held in October 2011, left the Islamist Ennahda party in the lead but with far less than a majority—it won 37 percent of the vote, forcing it to form a coalition government with two secular parties. The rule of “the Troika” got off to a bad start in September 2012 when a fundamentalist mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis, although, unlike in Libya, no American diplomats were hurt. This was followed in 2013 by the assassination of two leftist opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

Secular political leaders blamed Ennahda for tolerating Salafist terrorists. Protesters took to the streets, the Tunisian General Labor Union called a strike, and for a few months the country appeared to be on the verge of coming apart. But cooler heads prevailed. Rather than cling to power the way that Mohamed Morsi had done in Egypt, Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister resigned in January 2014. Ali Laarayedh was succeeded by a technocratic caretaker administration under Mehdi Jomaa, whose task was to supervise parliamentary elections on October 26, to be followed a month later, on November 23, by a presidential election. (The president’s powers under the new constitution remain unclear but appear to be less significant, in many respects, than those of the prime minister.)

Ennahda is so eager to assure Tunisia’s “deep state”—composed of holdover bureaucrats from Ben Ali’s time—that it will not repeat Morsi’s abuses, which led to a military coup in Egypt, that it has refrained from even running a candidate in the presidential election. The frontrunner is Béji Caïd Essebsi, an 87-year-old who has held numerous cabinet and parliamentary posts and heads a secular coalition called Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), formed to counter Ennahda. Ennahda is not, however, giving up its quest for power. It contested the parliamentary elections with great skill, employing a smoothly running political organization that grew up around the mosques during Ben Ali’s dictatorship, when other political parties could not organize.

Yet Ennahda failed to win over a largely secular public: It finished in second place, with 31.79 percent of the vote, behind Nidaa Tounes’s 39.71 percent. Neither party has enough seats to form a government on its own. The general expectation is that the two are likely to form a coalition with some of the smaller, secular parties in a government of national unity to address Tunisia’s deep-seated economic woes, which in many ways have gotten worse since Ben Ali fled the presidential palace. Economic growth in 2013 was under 3 percent, and the unemployment rate was over 17 percent. Tunisia has produced many college graduates but few jobs for them—some 30 percent of young people with university degrees are unemployed.

Regulations are oppressive, and corruption is endemic. One young businessman who was running for office told me it takes 126 pieces of paper simply to open a bakery. Little wonder that the standard procedure is to bribe a bureaucrat—or simply not bother. Tunisia has a vast public-sector bureaucracy, 600,000 in a country of 11 million people. Polls show that most Tunisians dream of working for the government, not starting their own businesses. Even with so many unemployed, farmers have to import laborers from Egypt and the Ivory Coast to harvest the citrus and olive crops—few Tunisians are willing to do manual labor.

Optimists cite the country’s history as a trading center dating back to the time of Carthage (whose ruins can be seen in a ritzy suburb of Tunis) to argue that Tunisians are naturally entrepreneurial. There is some truth to this, but more than a century and a half of one-party rule—first under the French, then under post-independence leaders Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali—has done much to sap Tunisians’ energy and initiative.

More than 60 parties of varying size contested the parliamentary election, but only one, Afek Tounes (Tunisian Aspiration), ran on a platform of free-market reform. I met several of its activists, who generally have business backgrounds, and was impressed by their energy and idealism. They tell voters that they should seek salvation not from the government but from their own efforts and that the job of government is to get out of the way. But this Reaganesque message is a tough sell in a country whose political DNA was formed by a combination of French and Arab culture. Afek Tounes had only a modest showing, finishing in fifth place with 3.68 percent of the vote, while the winning Nidaa Tounes is full of French-style socialists who are unlikely to support the radical free-market reforms the country desperately needs.

Tunisia is a tourist hot spot waiting to happen: It has a long and beautiful coastline on the Mediterranean, lots of beaches, scenic mountains, Roman ruins, and a friendly, French-speaking population. But many businesses shut down altogether during the prime tourist months of July and August—much of the population decamps to the beach. Hotels are another obstacle. I stayed in a grand marble pile in the seaside town of Tabarka that looked impressive, but the lights often did not work, and the food was unpalatable. Why, I wondered, aren’t the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Sofitel, and other top hotel chains running resorts here? You can’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks anywhere, either. The real climate may be warm and sunny, but the regulatory climate is chilly and inhospitable.

Ordinary Tunisians are understandably dispirited by the lack of economic progress since Ben Ali left. Young people especially are disillusioned. I heard many of them say that it’s nice to be able to criticize the government and even to elect their own leaders, but more than anything they want good jobs and more opportunity. If those frustrations aren’t addressed, the country could take a dangerous turn.

Tunisia has already exported some 3,000 fighters—more on a per capita basis than any other country—to join ISIS in Syria. Two IRI observers actually heard a pair of long-bearded Salafists recruiting Tunisian youths to fight in Syria right in the middle of a popular café an hour outside Tunis. Unless the next government can jumpstart the economy, radical Islam’s appeal may widen. Clean elections are a good start, and in that respect, at least, Tunisia has made more progress than any of its neighbors. But it still has a long way to go before it can deliver on the promise of the Arab Spring.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

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