Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the non-Islamist Nida Tunis coalition, which he founded in 2012 as an umbrella for secular groups who had previously been splintered into over a dozen formations, has been decisively elected Tunisia’s next president in the country’s first free and open presidential election. His margin over incumbent Moncef Marzouki is huge: almost 11%. If that isn’t a landslide, it’s very close. The usual threshold for a landslide is calculated at about 15 percentage points, but the American magazine Politico calculates it at 10 points. Either way, Essebsi’s victory is dramatic and unmistakable. But his problems begin now.
For the Islamist Ennahda party, Marzouki’s defeat comes as another bitter blow. They had supported the incumbent because he wasn’t Essebsi, and because they thought he would cooperate with them. Ennahda, early on, had pledged not to run a candidate or officially support anyone standing for president. They stuck with that pledge, perhaps learning a lesson from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which reneged on a similar promise regarding the presidency in that country. And officially they didn’t support anyone. But unofficially there was no doubt they were pushing strongly for Marzouki, and, just as in the recent parliamentary elections in which they were soundly defeated by Nida Tunis, the ability of Ennahda to command majorities or bring out massive numbers of votes is again called into question.
But having lost the parliamentary election, perhaps it’s counterintuitively better for Ennahda that their preferred candidate didn’t win the presidency. Tunisia faces an enormous, perhaps overwhelming, set of challenges. The economy continues to struggle. And there is a serious and growing problem with extremist violence. No country provides more foreign fighters to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria than Tunisia does. And the country faces a more local, homegrown, radical terrorist movement in Ansar al-Sharia, which operates regionally in the hinterlands of Libya, Algeria and other areas in the Sahara and Sahel.
Having won both the biggest number of seats in parliament and the presidency, Nida Tunis now faces the daunting prospect of being responsible for dealing with all of this, and more. The situation has developed in such a way that Nida Tunis probably needs a coalition with Ennahda more than Ennahda does.
The Islamist group now faces a win-win scenario in defeat. If it is brought into government in a coalition with Nida Tunis, it will have demonstrated that even though it loses elections, its constituency is so powerful and important that it cannot wisely or practicably be excluded from government. It will remain close to the levers of power and important and influential. On the other hand, if Nida Tunis forms a coalition without Ennahda, all the Islamists have to do is kick back and criticize the government’s performance, with increasing vehemence over time, as the loyal opposition.
There wouldn’t even be a need for Ennahda to sabotage the new government’s policies on crucial and perhaps irresolvable challenges such as the economy and security. A rising chorus of criticism would probably be sufficient to set the stage for a major comeback for Ennahda in future parliamentary and presidential elections. Indeed, if it were seen as acting as a kind of disloyal opposition or obstructionist group, that could, and probably would, backfire. Much wiser, therefore, for Ennahda, if it finds itself out of government in the coming months, to strike a pose as cooperative and sincere, but increasingly disappointed on behalf of the whole country with the administration’s failures on economic and security matters, and possibly more.
As for Essebsi, he faces not only a daunting series of policy challenges, but also a new situation for his Nida Tunis coalition. Since it was founded in 2012, Nida Tunis has been a motley and incongruous assemblage of political forces, entities and personalities that share little in common except one thing: they are either non- or anti-Islamist. They came together to push back the wave of support that brought Ennahda to power in the parliamentary elections following the overthrow of former dictator Ben Ali.
The groups that came together in the Nida Tunis coalition realized that, even in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the dictatorship, Ennahda was not a majority party. It gained power, instead, because non-Islamist or secular groups were so numerous, contentious and badly divided. The non-Islamist majority existed, but it had no ability to govern or form coherent coalitions, because it was so fractured. This delivered power to a coherent, united and large Islamist minority.
The challenge became increasingly urgent as Ennahda’s performance in government in the troika coalition it led was increasingly vulnerable to severe criticism on both security and the economy. Moreover, two crucial developments in constitutional negotiations opened the door for Nida Tunis’ bid for power even further.
First, the defeat of the political exclusion initiative demonstrated that experience in governance under the former dictatorship, which in the immediate aftermath of the uprising was seen as a taint or black mark against politicians and technocrats, was now being re-conceptualized by the Tunisian public as potentially desirable. Experience and technical ability were not necessarily bad things, and not everyone associated with the former regime could be reasonably seen as a remnant of the dictatorship. Indeed, technical competence was now increasingly seen as desirable, especially given the failures of the inexperienced troika coalition, and the relatively better performance of the technocratic interim administration over the past year or so.
Second, given that Ennahda was forced to compromise on the nature of the emerging Tunisian political system, accepting a major role for the presidency, Nida Tunis was given another major national power. Ennahda naturally strongly favored a parliamentary system, given that they could rely on their base to produce something between at least 20-30% of any given national vote. So they were poised to always be a significant, if not dominant, force in parliament. But that same base would require a great deal of external support to secure the presidency, particularly in a one-on-one runoff against a powerful and popular non-Islamist candidate who could call on the secular majority.
In the event, Ennahda had to accept a mixed system in the new constitution, allocating major powers to parliament on domestic issues, but establishing a strong presidency on national security and defense matters. The powerful chief executive position was almost tailor-made for Nida Tunis in general and Essebsi in particular. Even though Tunisia’s new president is 88 years old, and served in the government of former dictatorships before breaking with them many years ago, he does seem to have galvanized strong support among the national non-Islamist majority.
But now that Essebsi and Nida Tunis have won both the parliamentary and presidential elections, they will find that being exclusively responsible for Tunisia’s challenges may be a crown of thorns. They won’t regret their victory. But, if they exclude Ennahda from the next coalition in parliament, they may find themselves facing an increasingly powerful and popular opposition as Tunisia’s problems fester (which seems very likely, no matter what policies are adopted by whatever government). Ennahda has avoided the trap that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood fell into of overreaching. In so doing, they have retained their political viability and the potential for a major comeback.
So, ironically, in victory Nida Tunis is looking at a lose-lose scenario, while Ennahda in defeat faces a win-win one. It would probably be better for the country, and for Nida Tunis, if they invite Ennahda into the parliamentary coalition and the Islamists accept. But there are arguments against taking that step, and Nida Tunis doesn’t seem keen on embracing their Islamist rivals. It’s likely that they will avoid including Ennahda in the next government if they can. But if they do, they may be setting Ennahda up for a major comeback in a few years, particularly if the Islamists create the impression of being loyal, cooperative and sincere, even in opposition.