Thursday, November 27, 2014

Essebsi Victory in Tunisia's Presidential Elections Would Increase Unrest in Event of Islamist Exclusion From Government
Tunisian presidential candidates Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid
Essebsi will stand in a run-off election  in late December.
IHS Jane's Intelligence Review
26 November 2014
Tunisia's preliminary voting results show the two candidates for the presidency Beji Caid Essebsi, right, with 39.46% and Moncef Marzouki, left, with 33.43% on 25 November 2014. Source: PA

Key Points

Each candidate is offering a different vision for Tunisia's future; Marzouki a defence of religious freedoms and check on government power, Essebsi security and the risk of a return to one-party rule.

A victory for Essebsi, the frontrunner, would give Nidaa Tounes control of both branches of government, and dominance of the legislature. Although positive for policy predictability, the exclusion of political Islamism from power would risk undermining political stability.

The election is likely to proceed in a free and fair manner, without significant disruption from civil unrest. There is a moderate risk of a terrorist attack on polling day, including in Tunis, but more particularly in the economically depressed western governorates along the border with Algeria.


Tunisia's presidential election will be settled in a late-December run-off election between incumbent Moncef Marzouki and Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caïd Essebsi.

Beji Caid Essebsi, whose party is likely to form Tunisia's new coalition government after triumphing in October's legislative election, came first with 39.46% of the vote. Moncef Marzouki secured second place with 33.43%. The presidency has limited powers under the new constitution promulgated in January 2014, and can only fire senior officials in consultation with the Prime Minister. However, the President can table bills in the legislature and propose issues to be decided by referenda. He is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and appoints the governor of the Central Bank, the Mufti (Tunisia's highest religious authority), and four of the 12 members of the Constitutional Court.

Election dynamics

Each candidate represents a different vision for the future of Tunisian society. Essebsi, 87, was a leading figure in the ousted regime of Ben Ali, and has campaigned on a secularist platform emphasising stability and economic recovery. Marzouki, 69, is a human rights activist, who as president worked closely with the Islamist party Al-Nahda that won Tunisia's first democratic election in October 2011. He has argued that an Essebsi presidency would risk a return to the one-party state and undermine the gains of the 2011 revolution. Essebsi has meanwhile accused Marzouki, who has not run on a religious platform, of being in thrall to Al-Nahda and other organised Islamist interests.

Key to the run-off will be the division of the 8% of the vote garnered by Hamma Hammami, the third-place candidate. Hammami, 62, is the leader of the Popular Front leftist coalition, and spokesman for the Tunisian Workers' Party. Although staunchly secularist, the Popular Front has a similar anti-imperialist socio-economic approach to Marzouki, and is not a natural ally of Nidaa Tounes. Without Hammami offering an explicit endorsement for either Essebsi or Marzouki, which is unlikely, his support will be split between the two candidates. A game-changer would be the official endorsement of Marzouki by Al-Nahda, which has not run an official candidate. Although this would swing the support of Al-Nahda's sizable grassroots network behind Marzouki, it would also split the vote firmly along secularist and Islamist lines. The results of the October legislative vote - which was dominated by secularist parties - suggests that this would probably cement victory for Essebsi. For this reason al-Nahda is likely to remain officially impartial, while lending tacit support to Marzouki.

Profile of Beji Caid Essebsi

Formerly a renowned Tunisian business lawyer and arbitrator, Essebsi is a specialist in foreign investment and oil and gas law. He held high office under the authoritarian Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali presidencies, and is generally pro-business in terms of foreign investment, including in the extractive sector.

Essebsi is the leader of Nidaa Tounes, a wide coalition that comprises business leaders, centre-right members of the former regime, and centre-left activists. Despite being broadly pro-market, economic reforms mandated by the IMF, such as public sector pay cuts, tax rises, and subsidy reduction are likely to attract opposition from factions within the party. Although these internal divisions may prompt delays in the formulation of economic policy, they are unlikely to drastically change the party's pro-market approach.

Nidaa Tounes was at the forefront of the August 2013 anti-government protests that culminated in Al-Nahda transferring power to a technocratic government. The party's grassroots are staunchly opposed to Islamism in general and to religious interference in legislation. Essebsi's campaign rhetoric has revealed fundamentally anti-Islamist views, inspired by Tunisian liberal Islamic traditions such as moderate opposition to the hijab (head veil), hostility to the niqab (full face veil), and staunch protection for full gender equality. This makes it likely that an Essebsi presidency and Nidaa Tounes-led government would continue the security crackdown on Salafist activism, and in the long term risk exacerbating social divisions by legislating to limit religious freedoms. This would probably be viewed by Al-Nahda as an attack on political Islamism, increasing the likelihood of mass civil unrest in urban centres including Tunis, and driving up the risk of lone-wolf terrorist attacks by disaffected Islamists.

Profile of Moncef Marzouki

Marzouki, of the Congress for the Republic (Congres pour la République: CPR) party, is likely to have the support of a significant number of al-Nahda supporters. Although as President he has occasionally courted controversy, he remains well respected for his work as a human rights activist and dissident during the Ben Ali regime. Nonetheless, his leading role in the unpopular Al-Nahda-led 'Troika' coalition government (with the CPR, and Ettakatol) is likely to erode his popular appeal.

Following the 2011 uprising, resource nationalism has become one of the key themes in the policy discourse of Marzouki's CPR party and its offshoots, the Wafa Party and the Democratic Trend. CPR representatives in the interim National Constituent Assembly (NCA) have campaigned against the interests of foreign investors in the oil and gas sector and other extractive industries. The party was also instrumental in the adoption of Articles 12 and 13 of the Constitution, which introduced greater parliamentary scrutiny of oil and gas contracts. If elected, Marzouki would probably advocate an increased focus on resource nationalist policies, although his ability to affect policy would be constrained by the limited powers of the presidency.


An Essebsi presidency would give Nidaa Tounes control of both branches of government. This would firm up policy direction and predictability, but risks exacerbating civil unrest and terrorism risks should Al-Nahda not be included in a unity cabinet. A Marzouki presidency would be likely to take an activist approach to checking the power of the government, and advocate a balance between protecting the civil rights of Islamist activists and tackling the rising threat of domestic radicalisation and militancy. With secularists likely to take full control of government, this would provide an important political outlet for Islamist discontent, and reduce the risk of mass civil unrest as seen in August 2013.

Significant civil unrest around the December run-off vote is unlikely, although there remains a moderate risk of socio-economic motivated protests in the interior governorates of Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kasserine, and Kef, that could result in minor property damage. There is an elevated risk of terrorist attack from the Jebel Chaambi-based Uqba ben Nafi brigade, which threatened in October to assassinate senior politicians and disrupt the electoral process. This risk is most likely to manifest in low sophistication lone-wolf attacks against security force targets in Kef, Jendouba, and Kasserine governorates.

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