Tunisia can pull it off but with caveats
In Tunisia today, there are many reasons to worry but there is no compelling reason to doubt the country can overcome its concerns.
There is reason to be preoccupied, above everything else, about the country’s sluggish economy. With barely 1% GDP growth and many years of accumulated lacklustre performance, the country’s economic engine is, at best, sputtering.
Tunisia’s socio-economic woes are deep and systemic. It would be misleading to think that such woes started with the 2010 uprising. Demonstrations in impoverished regions ignited mass unrest but the tinderbox was just waiting for a spark.
With high unemployment, regional imbalances and rife suspicion of corruption, the conflagration was predictable. Signs of the incipient unravelling were visible in the mining region of south-western Tunisia since at least 2008. With widespread sentiment of unfairness, the system was cracking at the seams in more than one place.
The socio-economic ills have not gone away. Such conditions fuelled an anti-establishment wave of protest in the September 15 election round.
In the confused landscape of the presidential and legislative campaigns, anxiety is amplified by messages of incitement and hostility exchanged by protagonists and their supporters. A report by the Tunisian Association for the Integrity of Democratic Elections stated how social media and sponsored Facebook pages are making negative political advertising online the new normal.
Despite the fearmongering and hyperbole, most Tunisians have not reached the point that they are doubtful of their country’s ability to manage its problems and take the electoral process to its ultimate destination.
Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui, the two populist front-runners in the presidential race, both lack government service experience but that’s exactly what the voters wanted: candidates with little or no connection to the discredited establishment. That’s hardly unique; the world is full of examples of outsiders pulling an upset.
Those who were on the media beat in the early 1980s remember the doubts fuelled by the election of Ronald Reagan as US president. Sceptical journalistic minds wondered then how a Hollywood actor could have credibility and authority at the Oval Office. A seasoned watcher of the US political scene told me then: “I am not worried. Even Mickey Mouse could run the White House.”
As other US presidents have always done, Reagan surrounded himself with the best advisers he could bring onboard. He went on to be credited with inducing the fall of the Soviet empire. Many remember that achievement, especially now with the upcoming celebration of the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.
In Tunisia and many other parts of the Arab world, you can bet on civil service and the large pool of highly competent cadres to save the day if politicians mess up. To try to run the country without them would be foolhardy and would compound the setbacks. The protective reflex of career public servants, if allowed to do their work, will kick in to shield the ruling class from the fallout of its disruptive decisions. It did so after 2011. If there was ever a benevolent Deep State, that would be it.
Eventually, the anti-establishment generation, whether in the presidential palace or in the parliament, will have to reckon with stubborn economic realities and Tunisia’s need for outside goodwill. This is not the time for untested notions.
Checks and balances could be provided by the legislative branch. Parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 6, will, we hope, provide a governing majority capable of engaging the needed reforms. A too splintered legislative landscape could prevent that. Rethinking the system should not be an excuse for delaying the economic recovery and addressing the needs of young generations that cannot wait.
Will the new political leaders be able to cope? It remains to be seen; but Saied, in his first hour-long live television interview, September 25, tried to reassure Tunisians of his ability to do so by distancing himself on domestic and foreign policies advocated by the radical fringe that claims to speak for him. It is not clear what role members of that fringe would play in his administration.
Saied needs to clarify his stances on more than one issue beyond reiterating in broad terms his awareness of the urgency of economic matters, his respect for individual rights and commitment to traditional ties with other countries.
More assurances from Saied would bring tensions another notch down. In the meantime, the more experienced modernist candidates, wiped out in the first round, will have the next five years to lick their wounds and shed their disproportionate egos.
Before that happens, political and judicial institutions will have to make sure the remaining days of the current campaign guarantee a fair shot for the detained hopeful Nabil Karoui so the country does not have to worry about a disgruntled candidate disputing the results of the runoff on October 13.
That day, Tunisia should be celebrating a new democratic milestone not jumping into an unhelpful phase of doubt and loathing.