Beji Caid Essebsi won with just over 55% of the vote in Tunisia’s first democratic presidential election since independence from France in 1956. Essebsi leads the Nida Tunis (Tunis Calls) party which runs on a secular platform and is seen by many as a liberal party. Nida Tunis won 85 of 217 seats in Parliamentary elections in October giving it the right to name a Prime Minister and lead a coalition government. Essebsi won the election versus the incumbent Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, with Marzouki carrying the more socially conservative South and Essebsi and Nida Tunis maintaining support in the more populous North.
The 88-year-old Mr Caid Essebsi actually served as a Minister three times in Habib Bourguiba’s government following Tunisia’s independence from France. Bourguiba ruled Tunisia from 1957 to 1987 and whilst controversially installed for life by the National Assembly in 1975 his rule may have been seen by many to have brought secularity and efficiency to government. Due to his President’s health, the autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali took control of the Presidency until the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 called for more Democracy and freedom which removed him from power. Since then Tunisia has had four presidents in as many years with Mohamed Ghannouchi, Fouad Mebazaa and Moncef Marzouki holding the office.
The election of Caid Essebsi might be seen to represent a shift towards more secular politics within Tunisia. Following the Arab Spring uprisings the Nahda (“Awakening”) party led a governing coalition however decided to abstain from providing a candidate for the election. Nida Tunis appears to be a melting pot made up of members of Mr Ben Ali’s former ruling party combined with non-aligned figures who want to use the secularism and efficiency of the previous regime in a more Democratic government. It might seem that with the moderate Islamist party Ennahda winning 69 seats the role of religion within the government is still up for debate within Tunisia.
The Arab Spring aimed to change autocratic patriarchal leaders in the Middle East and North Africa to more representative and free governments. This may be seen to herald the question of how much of a role religion might play within government, as initially in elections it seemed that Islamist parties made significant gains after being prohibited for so long. This might also be seen within Egypt where, following the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood made significant political gains and their candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the 2012 Presidential Election until the party was removed from power by the army after widespread protests directed at Morsi. It seems that the question of secularism is much broader and may be seen as relevant throughout the region. Especially when the multiple different religions and differing factions within these religions are considered there is a possibility that separation between the church and state may be an important challenge in the political future of the region.
The results of this election might be envisaged to provide more secularism and efficiency to Tunisia whilst also safeguarding the freedoms, liberty and openness gained through the Arab Spring which Nida Tunis has promised to protect. Equally, in a region facing so many challenges tied to views of religion, stability and secularism might be seen by many people as important in the future of the region. Having gained significant freedoms and representation within its government it seems that the Tunisian people might be searching for certain qualities of the previous regime, which may explain the voting for many establishment figures. The progression and challenges faced by Tunisia since the Arab Spring highlight the desire that people across North Africa and the Middle East have for more representation and input regarding their governments that, in a diverse and complex region, may be focused upon secularism.
How has the Arab Spring productively changed Tunisia and what might a democratic Tunisia mean for North Africa and the Middle East?