Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In Tunisia, Waiting For The Morning After

By H.D.S. Greenway in Tunis
The political ads are entitled “The Morning After,” and one shows a waiter in an empty seaside restaurant. The tourists have all fled and business is off, suggesting the fate of the country should the Islamists come to power. Another shows a mother with a head scarf comforting her children, complaining that her husband has left her and now may want four wives, whereas Tunisian men are presently limited to one.
Yet another spot shows a decidedly secular young lady whose job will now be filled by a man, she fears, and another shows a student regretting that he slept through the elections that the Islamists have just won.
With an constituent assembly to be elected on Oct. 23, these negative ads, aired on TV and the Internet, clearly target the Islamist-leaning Al Nahda (Renaissance) party, led by the 70-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned here from exile following the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The ads are the Tunisian equivalent of the famous spot that Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign aired of a little girl picking daisy petals with a mushroom cloud rising behind her, suggesting what might happen if Barry Goldwater were elected president in 1964.
The liberal and secular parties are clearly worried that Al Nahda, with a substantial lead in the polls, will garner the most votes in Tunisa’s first real election since independence from France in 1956. For Al Nahda is much better organized than its secular rivals.
Tunisia’s electoral process appears more chaotic than the more staid expressions of the people’s will in Europe and America. Some 11,000 candidates in more than 100 political parties, some of them hardly more than parties of one, are competing for 217 seats in a constituent assembly that will draw up a new constitution, form a parliament and choose a president. This is democracy in the rough, “and whoever wins decrees the fate of Tunisia for many years go come,” says a political scientist, Hamadi Redissi.
With 50 percent undecided, almost anything could happen. But this is not a winner-take-all election. Assembly members will be seated according to which party lists receive the most votes, and even if Al Nahda wins, the secular parties, in coalition, could outnumber the Islamists. Tunisia is the most industrialized country in Africa after South Africa, and people seem more worried about high unemployment and a faltering economy than they are about social issues.
Tunisians living abroad will be allowed to vote, and secularists worry that Tunisians living in Europe may be more Islamist than their countrymen here.
The hand of Islam lies more lightly on the land in Tunisia than in many Muslim countries, with wine grown and consumed and women decidedly emancipated. What, then, explains Al–Nahda’s popularity? Some say it is that the Islamists have suffered more, having been jailed and their political activity banned so harshly under Ben Ali. Others say it is that the Islamists stand for values and are less corrupt then their secular brothers.
Najib Chebbi, a soft-spoken and dignified man who heads the leading secular party, the Progressive Democratic Party, told me that although Tunisians in their hearts may admire the Islamists, in their heads voters believe that the secularists can do a better job creating jobs and modernizing the country. Or so he hopes.
Ghannouchi has been painting himself and his party as Islamic moderates similar to the Justice and Development Party of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Al Nahda says it won’t introduce Shariah law or polygamy, or enforce head scarves, or unravel the equality of women. But the secularists fear that Al Nahda is only hiding its Islamic agenda.
American political consultants flock to elections such as these nowadays, and I ran into John Aristotle Phillips, chief executive of Washington-based Aristotle, a company that has advised political clients in fledgling elections from Eastern Europe to the Khyber Pass. But Aristotle and the others have their work cut out for them here because Tunisia’s election commission, in an effort to guarantee a level playing field for all the candidates, has severely restricted how political parties can get their message out.
For a while parties could advertise on TV and radio, but then that was banned. Billboards were allowed, then banned. Posters are restricted to certain size and they can only be posted on designated walls.
For all of that, democracy has more chance of succeeding in Tunisia than almost anywhere in the Arab world because of its well-developed middle class, high literacy rate, civil society and relatively homogeneous population. Laws protecting women’s rights are the strongest in the region.
Yet if the polls are anywhere near the mark, it is also clear that Islamists will have more to say here on the morning after than they’ve ever had before.
This report was published in The New York Times on 12/10/2011

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