We were sitting at the Espérance Sportive de Tunis Cafe Bab Souika, verbally composing a list of groceries to buy at the souk, sipping our café filtre. I had tried to order our three cups of coffee in my fledgling Tunisian Arabic, “ah-tee-nee lay-tha case kava.” The waiter smiled and repeated the order with the French ‘trois.’ I have been having bad luck with my Arabic ‘3.’ But I have tried to never let linguistic shortcomings come between me and caffeine. Moments later the waiter returned with three short, thick glasses of coffee, flared at the top as is the style, and two large glasses of water.
As anyone who has tasted the aromatic cups of sweet, steaming, sludgy traditional Arabic or Turkish coffee in the back rooms of shisha cafes, padded with cushions, curtains, and lamps, in the heat or at night, in crowded cafes flooded by foreign words, minimalist restaurants with Eastern twists, or just a neighborhood kebab shop knows, sugar is added as the coffee cooks. But with our filter coffee we are given full choice to the degree of sweetness. We have taken to adding one sugar cube to the fragrant Tunisian coffee. This dearth of sweet has resulted in measured disbelief on several occasions as Tunisians are accustomed to usually adding—we are told—three cubes of sugar to every cup. We are handed our single cube with tongs of incredulity.
As we were discussing some mundane topic such as how many kilos of chickpeas or rice to buy we were alerted to the parade of banners and flags approaching from down the street. A chain of about 30 people were meandering through the stopped traffic, hopping onto the sidewalks, and ducking into shops. Some handed out pamphlets amid an entourage of waving Tunisian flags. A small group at the vanguard marched slowly with a long white banner, emblazoned with a stylized Olive tree that faded from a bright chartreuse to an olive drab and downward to a carmine red, beneath which was written PDP in the same shade of red.
They approached the cafe. Their faces were glowing with the jubilance of hard-won political freedom. Several older men with pot bellies and ties, women with curly hair and suites exchanged quick words with the men around us, a few stood back and took pictures, others distributed pamphlets. The explanations and photo-ops faded into the background of Place Bab Souika as the parade passed on into the souk, leaving talk of elections, and PDP pamphlets in their trail. This was my first display of campaign performances and I thought I would take some time to unpack some initial thoughts on the evolving democratic process by examining this first party to really come across my attention physically.
PDP is the acronym of The Progressive Democratic Party (In Arabic لحزب الديمقراطي التقدمي, al-Ḥizb ad-Dīmuqrāṭī at-Taqaddumī; or Parti démocrate progressiste, in French). The PDP was founded by Ahmed Najib Chebbi, who still leads the party. Originally the Progressive Socialist Rally in 1983, it later gained legal status as an opposition party in 1988. In 2001 it changed its name to the current Progressive Democratic Party. In 2006 Jribi Maya became the secretary-general, breaking the gender barrier for woman in such office. In 2009 Chebbi attempted to run for president but was barred from running. Chebbi is currently serving as the Minister of Local Development in the interim government.
While the PDP was a legal opposition party under Ben Ali, Chebbi endured years of intimidation by security forces and harassment by pro-government groups for his opposition stance. In October 2005, ahead of the UN’s “world summit on the information society” held in Tunis, Chebbi in addition to eight other prominent figures went on hunger strike. Calling themselves the October 18th Movement, they demonstrated for freedom of the press and of association, and the release of Tunisia’s, at the time, 600-odd political prisoners. It is this history of political opposition that has led to Chebbi, and the PDP’s, relatively high degree of support in preliminary polling ahead of the 23 October National Constituent Assembly.
On 15 January Al Jazeera quoted Chebbi,”This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession…” “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”
However, it has been noted that due to Ben Ali’s tight control of the media Chebbi is not well-known outside of more elite circles and established opposition activists. This could explain the results of a recent survey by the Institute of Survey and Data Processing Statistics (ISTIS) and the Tunisia African Press Agency. While the PDP is the number two ranked party in the constituent assembly elections, according to the Middle East News Source, they are only pulling about 8.7% support of those surveyed. The moderate Islamic Al Nahda party polled at 22.8%. However these figures are not sufficient indicators to assume landslide results later this October. Official campaigning for the 23 October election only began on 1 October. And there are lingering considerations about the level of political knowledge and engagement among the country.
In political environments that are unaccustomed to democratic participation it is naive to assume a sudden landslide of political participation after significant changes in social and political conditions, regardless of the fact that these changes were brought about by popular mobilization. After all, it is often easier to break down than to build up. As Tunisian political sociology professor Hafedh Abd Rahim points out, “Tunisians’ remissness of the electoral campaign, especially among the youth, is due to their lack of interest in politics as a result of political marginalization during the last decades.”For this reason the democratization process should be understood as far more than the simple road to elections. As political opportunities open, those who take advantage of these openings should be more than just the elite who hope to compete in elections but should include those who have been previously marginalized, which in Tunisia essentially comprises the entire population. The electoral campaign must begin with a robust engagement with all members of the Tunisian society toward education and encouraging interest and participation, which may take many forms.
Framed in an alternative analysis, Meher Trimich, another Tunisian academic, believes political apathy is far from a Tunisian phenomenon. It is global, he says. “Apparently, the submitting of one’s voice –which is a conviction, makes the voter vulnerable as individual. This process requires forging bonds of trust between the government and the people.” This is a daunting task in a society freshly out generations of governmental abuse.
As much as a burn victim carries his or her scar, the victim of a culture of fear does not escape the ingrained behavior adapted for personal, familial, and community security simply when the physical conditions that comprised that culture of fear are lifted. It is often a psychic domination that lingers with as much conviction as when it was a material reality.
Two weeks ago, a few days after I had first arrived in Tunis, while I was walking around Rue Habib Bourguiba a 27 year old Tunisian man came up to me selling faded postcards with 1980s snapshots of famous places in Tunisia. I told him I wasn’t interested in buying postcards but offered to have a chat over a coffee. He started to introduce himself, his interests, and Tunisia. After speaking about his hobbies and family for a while I tried to change to topic to politics. He resisted. We parried this topic for several rounds but he made it clear that he was uncomfortable speaking about anything political. He merely alluded to some incident in the past involving his family and the government. He didn’t elaborate. At the time I shrugged this off as an example of what Rahim mentions above. But after some consideration I grew more convinced that this political apathy and reticence was likely a result of fear. Fear of an old system. Fear of reprisal. Later, in conversation with a Tunisian friend of mine, this thought was somewhat confirmed. After all, the Ben Ali years were known for walls with ears, secret police, arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances.
Rahim and Trimich’s analyses are probably both correct. The primary task ahead of the 23 October elections is political education and concentrated efforts to ensure people’s feelings of security. People must feel safe to participate, to speak and act freely. But education and awareness of at least what the vote is for should come before any discussion of partisan promises.
This analysis is confirmed by a May survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) which found that only 43% of those surveyed correctly identified the election as a Constituent Assembly election, 26% gave an incorrect answer, and 31% said they did not know. These numbers did not seem to have changed according to a 22 September article in Magharebia which noted an alternate survey that 45% of those surveyed did not know anything about the role of the Constituent Assembly and that they did not trust political parties because of ambiguity.
The elections in October are not the final step. They will merely elect an assembly which will be entrusted with the task of reworking a constitution for the country. Again, the democratization process is arduous. If political apathy or disengagement remains, regardless of where it falls within Rahim and Trimich’s analyses, the continued momentum that succeeded in creating this opportunity will likely fall to the elite of the country. If the population does not remain informed, impassioned, engaged, and consulted, the structure of political power may well conform to its most comfortable mold. That is, the largess of a political elite extending slowing into the homes of temporary voters.
Addressing this Amir Yahyaoui, an independent candidate at the head of the Sawt Mostakel, had a powerful remark at this week’s 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting when asked to define what ‘fighting Ben Ali’ means today. She explained that when you look at the main political players campaigning right now what they focus on is building bridges, hospitals, etc. But what is more important now is the constitution, what goes into the constitution. Yahyaoui’s point is that it is the complexion of the constitution that will set the character of post Ben Ali Tunisia. This is a crucial sentiment and one that does not look good compared to the statistics above. Only 43% of the surveyed population was fully aware that they were voting for representatives that would be tasked with rewriting the constitution.
According to primary statistics, there are currently 10,937 candidates to the constituent assembly, 24% between the age of 23 and 30 (2,597), 55% between the age of 30 and 50 (6,057), and 21% between the age of 50 and 70 (2,283). What is most important at this stage of rebuilding Tunisia is a critical and open discussion of what kind of constitution the country wants, and needs. The worst thing for any of these countless candidates and parties at this stage is to attempt to capitalize on the situation to launch personal political careers. With this many candidates it is a vastly complicated task but also a vital task to discourage political apathy, they must all abstain from ambiguity or political maneuvering and build toward a national consensus keeping in mind Yahyaoui’s reminder.
This article is part of an ongoing thought process. It is not an extensive discussion or analysis but merely a snapshot of the political environment on 7 October as observed by the author. This article is not in any way an endorsement for or against a particular candidate or party.