Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tunisian Election Predictions

Tunisian polling stations are just closing now, at 7pm local time, but voting will continue until all those in voting bureaus at the time of closing have voted. The Independent High Electoral Commission, or ISIE by its French Acronym, has announced that final results will likely not be available until Tuesday evening. As we wait for results to come in, I would like to venture a couple predictions, assuming voting and counting take place fairly.

1- Islamist-oriented Ennahdha is likely to win over 40%

Ennahdha is the best organized party in Tunisia, and by far the most popular. There are several reasons for this. As one Ennahdha member told me earlier this week, before Ennahdha was a political party, before it was even a movement, it was an organization - mainly of religiously oriented, underground political activists - which has its roots in the early 1980's. It has invaluable grassroots experience, which it has used to organize rallies (and according to unverified rumors - weddings, religious ceremonies, and community giveaways) and motivate their broad-based constituency. While the latest polls, which came out prior to the campaign season, put Ennahdha support at about 20-30%, undecided voters, which made up over 50%, are likely to swing in favor of Ennahdha.

Dozens of taxi drivers have told me, "the others are all thieves" in their eyes - Of course this must be taken with a grain of salt, but perception is important and the anecdote seems to hold water. Prior to the campaign season, the two parties at the top of the polls, Ennadha and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), were also the two with the biggest name recognition. While both Ennahdha leaders and PDP leaders spent time in jail under Ben Ali's regime, more Ennahdha leaders spent considerably more time in prison than PDP leaders. On top of that, PDP was a legal party under Ben Ali, trying desperately to be the voice of opposition in a political entity that tightly controlled opposition. These differences have worked to convince many Tunisians that Ennahdha was truly the voice of opposition against the old regime.

2- PDM is likely to come in second

PDM, or Al-Qotb, or the Pole Democratique Moderniste, is a coalition grouping of 4 leftist parties and 5 citizen initiatives. The best known of the parties, Ettajdid, is an old party that branched out from the communists and was legal under the former regime. The grouping has worked hard to be the voice of the Tunisian left without distancing itself from Islam. They have managed to organize impressive rallies that draw enthusiastic crowds, made up primarily of young Tunisians. They have also included numerous young candidates in their candidature lists. By grouping together, the movement has managed to tailor its message, with one party targeting artists, another evolved communists, and yet another internet activists who want an internet free from corporate interests and censorship. Meanwhile, Tunisia's best known communist party, POCT, has lost considerable support from leftists after hints from its leader, Hamma Hammami, that it will work together in coalition with Ennahdha. As for more centrist parties, like PDP and CPR, it seems as if Tunisians are likely to stay away from the "safe choice/center" parties the first time they cast their ballots.

Tunisia's Identity politics

Here is a brief excerpt from my piece in Al-Masry Al-Youm this week:

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamic-oriented Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, drew attention this week when he suggested in several interviews that his party would win a majority in the upcoming parliament. However, at a press conference in Tunis on Wednesday, Ghannouchi warned that "there is a risk of the election results being manipulated.”

“If there is manipulation, we will rejoin the forces and the guardians of the revolution which ousted Ben Ali and the first [interim] government. We are ready to oust up to ten governments if needed,” he was quoted as saying.

The comment has drawn concern from other Tunisian political parties, including the the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

“We are not going to work with them, especially after this last declaration,” says Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the PDP’s executive committee. However, PDP insists that it will respect the results of the election, regardless of the results. “We believe these elections will be fair. We will accept them because we are democrats. If Ennahda wins the majority, we will accept the result.”

Ennahda insists on shucking the “Islamist” label, instead saying that it is a party with an Arab-Islamic “reference.”

“For us, the respect of Islam, of our history, our civilization, that’s the base of our party,” says Nourreddine Arbaoui, a member of Ennahda's political bureau.

The entire piece is available at

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tunisia's bumpy path to democracy

Here is a brief excerpt of my latest piece in Foreign Policy:

TUNIS, Tunisia — On the eighth floor of a whitewashed building in downtown Tunis, Kamel Jendoubi sits bleary-eyed at a desk drowning in papers, his day full of meetings and far from over despite the darkening sky outside his window.

Jendoubi is president of Tunisia's Independent High Election Committee (ISIE by its French initials), tasked with supervising the country's first elections since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Scheduled for Oct. 23, they will also be the first popular elections in any country whose ruler was ousted by the Arab Spring. Unlike Libya, Tunisia has experienced relatively little violence, and unlike Egypt, the old regime has relatively little power to perpetuate itself.

But Jendoubi's task isn't easy. He's beset with a growing roster of concerns, ranging from reports of election corruption to limited resources and experience. "For me, we don't have enough election officials. … We are hearing rumors of parties and candidates giving money to voters," he says.

The full article is available here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

‘Arab Bloggers’ convene following some regional success

Bloggers, social media activists, and digital journalists convened in Tunis this week to discuss their role, responsibility, and challenges following the surprise, although incomplete, success of what many have termed the ‘Arab Spring.’

The ‘Third Arab Bloggers Meeting,’ the first to be held in almost two years, brought together voices from across the region, each telling their stories about how they have witnessed, recounted and participated in assertions of civic identities in what had previously been a region devoid of a strong civil society.

A Syrian woman, Razan Ghazzawi, who in recent months has begun to write on the political situation, braved speaking about her country’s domestic turmoil.

“Some people were against the protests. So many denied the protests,” She said.

It was difficult for many in Syria to believe that there were people demonstrating against the government, as, she says, protests taking place were often “flash protests,” dissolving after 2, 3 or 10 minutes. However, the fact that images of the protests were posted on the internet and social media websites refuted official narratives that there was no civic strife.

“The image brought down the lie,” said Ghazzawi.

Meanwhile Libyan blogger and essayist Ghazi Gheblawi, working from London to publicize the Libyan revolution, said that social media networks played an important role in pushing the cause of the revolution.

“The internet played a major role when Benghazi was totally isolated,” said Gheblawi. “Many people were smuggling videos [from Libya] – first to Tunisia, then uploaded to Youtube and Twitter. Youtube and Twitter magnified the events.”

A Blogger Nobel Peace Prize nominee?

Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who, according to rumors was in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, was also in attendance at the blogger meetings. She expressed to this journalist how happy she was to have been nominated, but is disturbed and confused by increasing attacks on her by the Tunisian media.

She warns that Tunisian bloggers still face challenges following an uprising that resulted in the ouster of longtime dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali earlier this year.

“Yes we are free, but you know, some two weeks ago a blogger was beaten by the police. Sometimes they just arrest bloggers because they are taking photos,” said Ben Mhenni. “[There is] no more censorship, but aggression is continuing.”

An Unexpected Visitor

Despite the concerns of some Tunisians that the January ‘revolution’ did not secure freedom of speech for all Tunisians, dramatic changes have taken place. The Tunisian government body charged with overseeing and censoring internet in Tunisia, made an appearance at Monday’s opening session, not to shut down the meeting, but to lend support to the conference. Moez Chackchouk, CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, or ATI, said that his agency, following the ‘revolution,’ was no longer the enemy of internet activists or free speech.

“We were the enemy of internet activists, but, after the revolution, we were able to open our doors to you,” Chakchouk told the stunned audience at Cite Des Sciences conference hall in Tunis.

While Chakchouk says that “the Ben Ali regime subsidized the development of a sophisticated censorship system” for the internet, he insists that now, “there is no taboo subject anymore for the new ATI.”

Several bloggers stood up after Chakchouk’s presentation, expressing their happy surprise at the fact that a government official was joining them at the conference.

“Eight or nine months ago, I would not have believed a government official would be talking like this,” said one blogger who addressed the audience.