Presidential election in Tunisia: Repetitions, news and consumerism before political engagement
by Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle.
The number 7 is printed on Tunisia’s notes. 7 is also a logo for many public authorities. And 7 is the name for one of Tunisia’s two state-run television channels. 7 stands for the date of November 7, 1987 where Tunisia’s incumbent president Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali took power. Thus, on November 7 this year Ben Ali could celebrate being in power for 22 years. That November 7 and Ben Ali’s being in power will also be celebrated the next five years was ensured a few weeks before at the presidential and parliamentary elections in October. The elections were not a display on how to develop a democracy. It did, however, elucidate a number of equally important areas of development in Tunisia.
No news in 2009 elections: Same game – same critique
According to the official results from the election, the president achieved 89,62 percent of the votes and his party Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) also won the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies with 84 percent of the votes. In many ways, the election as well as the campaign was almost a tedious repetition of the elections in 2004 and 1999. Ben Ali held lavish election events. For example, one of these took place at the national stadium – suitably called 7th November Stadium – filled with 60,000 cheering sympathizers. The governing party had once again established what could almost be described as an election village in Tunis where arts, children’s entertainment and IT technology in big tents promoted Ben Ali and his party. Election parades were held in all greater cities and the opposition tried to keep step with its own, less pompous election meetings. Once again, the usual parties supported the president’s candidacy while the usual opposing wing complained about election fraud. Ben Ali was heavily exposed in newspapers and at the news agency while the opposition was hard to spot.
To many people, the result of 89 percent is highly unlikely. The result is often used as an ultimate proof of the election being a false maneuver set into action to proof towards EU and the USA that a domestically political process is taking place towards democracy and pluralism. However, Tunisia after the election is precisely the same as the country was prior to the election. No change towards more democracy has taken place. This view is supported by a report made by Freedom House earlier this year. The report illustrated the degree of freedom in a number of countries and placed Tunisia lowest in an Arabic context right after Saudi Arabia and Syria. In the field of Middle East research it is, however, possible to make an analysis from another point of view. Even though there are no visible results regarding the development of democracy, other changes and developments may have taken place. Seen from this point of view, the Tunisian election can be used as a starting point for understanding other important aspects that are central to Tunisia.
News in the continuities: The family takes positions
However, in the middle of the election, it was remarkable how the president’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, took over more and more of the space normally left exclusively to her husband and how she created a profile of her own. Up to now, she has played a humble role at the official scene. However, during the election campaign Leila came more and more into focus in the pictures the state controlled news agency used to illustrate the news which also increasingly was about “The First Lady Leila”. There were even news from the campaign that was solely accompanied by photos that showed Leila and not Ben Ali. She gave speeches to big congregations without her husband, initiated comprehensive charity projects and was interviewed by important European and Arabic magazines. After the announcement of the election result Ben Ali is once again the center of the attention. In explaining why Leila Ben Ali used the election to expose herself you have to look closer at the family relations in the presidential family, the liberalization that has taken place within the last decade as well as the families’ struggle to secure their power.
Shortly after his takeover in 1987, Ben Ali was separated from his first wife and married Leila Trabelsi. The fact that Ben Ali has been married more than once means that there is one additional family that tries to position itself towards power in Tunisia. With his first wife Ben Ali has three daughters who have all married into highly-placed business families. With Leila, Ben Ali has a fourth daughter who recently also married a young, active and rich business man. Finally, there is Leila’s own family, the Trabelsis, who is running some of Tunisia’s largest companies. Along with a number of prominent ministers these 5 families make up the leading élite and a close inner circle around the president. Together with the president, these are the people who really govern the country. There is a parliament but power is always named as “The Palace” referring to the president’s home in Carthage outside Tunis. On several occasions it has become obvious that these five families compete about the power and money.
When seen in this context Leila’s act during the election campaign can be viewed as taking full advantage of the possibilities the election gives her in order to achieve fame an popularity. However, during the election she has also strengthened the Trabelsi family as well as her daughters in-laws compared to the three other families-by-marriage. This is a head start which may be used over the next 5 years to strengthen her wing of the family to be able to gain power at the next election where Ben Ali will retire as president.
Leila’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr El Materi, is known as an important business man and was furthermore elected member of the Parliament for the governing party. His dynasty includes the running of Tunisia’s harbour, import of cars, production and import of food, running of an Islamic radio channel and banking. Until the mid-1990’s, all these activities were state monopolies originally established in 1956. Later, arising from the belief that an economic liberalization would lead to increased political liberalization, the West and the EU increased their pressure on a number of Arabic countries in order to make them privatize the state owned enterprises. Thus, the Tunisian state chose to sell a number of their activities. However, giving up economic power also means giving up political power. The state may very well have sold activities, but the buyers have primarily been branches of the five families surrounding the president. This way, the regime has met the demands from outside while at the same time secured that power remains within the family with no regards to future election results and any strong opposing groups.
“Economy first” and consumerism
The new economic activity has not only benefited the five families. Great changes have taken place in relation to the inhabitants of Tunisia. Improvements, as the Tunisians would call it. Supermarkets have emerged with refrigerated counters and endless rows of yoghurt, biscuits, coffee, diapers and hardware. There is now full network coverage for mobile phones, fashion shops with international brands and large furniture stores. This is what the youth wants. Furthermore, since his takeover in 1987 Ben Ali has improved the infrastructure to include electrical power, water and asphalt roads in even the smallest and most remote villages. Brick houses have been built to the many people who previously lived in poor sheds and all cities now have a part of town called November 7 with large schools and high schools. Even among the journalists, who are used to being limited in their work, optimism is expressed even though it is moderate. It seems that it is now possible to take up subjects that were previously tabooed. The new privately held radio stations have discussion programs that have never been experienced before. Journalists can now cover stories that would earlier on have been censored because they were conceived as staining the government’s image.
Thus, gaining 89 percent of the votes during the election may seem as a high number, but many of those Tunisians who went to the polls do vote for Ben Ali and the governing party. Even those who are against the party. They cannot neglect the fact that things are actually going well and that progress is taking place. It may only be small steps, but it is, however, steps in the right direction. Keep in mind, the Tunisians say, that we are a young nation which has only had two presidents within the last 60 years.