Tunisians ready to vote amid high hopes for better lives

October 22, 2011

Tunisia’s marbled airport looked impeccably neat as passengers coming from Europe and Arab countries queued up to stamp their passports at the police counters.

Blond children, seemingly from northern Europe where schools are on a mini break, punctured the silence with their hearty giggles.

Outside, under the warm glow of the autumn sun, the unmistakable signs of the first free elections to be held in the Northern African country gave a new bright look to the capital.

Posters of smiling candidates and messages of grand promises and strong hope for the future are omnipresent, adorning walls and cars. Stands promoting party programmes have been set up in several places.

Tunisians are obviously trying to put behind them an era that deeply scarred the country and to move forward, even though many are still searching among all the ideologies and political messages being showered on them for the best way for their nation to forge a new identity and avoid tumultuous times.

At the main artery in Tunis, the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after the first president of the country, people’s faces were an expression of optimism.

Two days before the elections, men and women walking down the Tunisian Champs Elyses obviously wanted to believe that there was no reason to be worried, that everything would be fine and that the first test of democracy would be successful.

Deep inside, however, there were concerns that the new era might be fraught with dangers and with new ideas that the country has always kept at bay – political and religious extremism. A short way from Europe, Tunisia earnestly wanted to pass with flying colours the acid test of democracy through ballots and to secure peace, freedom, stability and progress.

Fears that Sunday would be a day of violence and chaos have been repeatedly dismissed by officials from the defence and interior ministries who said that up to 51,000 men and women in uniform would be deployed at the voting centres to ensure they remain trouble-free.

According to Brigadier Mokhtar Bin Nasr, 22,313 military men would be present at the 4,593 polling stations on Sunday.

“There will also security patrols in coordination with the police and national guard,” he told reporters. “We will also have elements ready for rapid intervention in specific cases. We are really keen on the success of the elections,” he said.

Hisham Mouaddab, from the interior ministry, said that 29,000 policemen and policewomen would be deployed.

“We will assign between two and 10 policemen for every polling station, depending on conditions,” he said. “I can assure you that the elections will be held under the most auspicious occasions.”

The interior ministry on Thursday urged people to focus on the historic moment and not to be affected by baseless rumours and false allegations about threats of violence.

The assurances have sought to boost a sense of confidence to a nation that has been bombarded by an unusually high level of contentions and comments.

Ennahdha, the religious party believed to fare well in the elections, this week complained that it has been the target of a derogatory campaign and a character assassination.

“So many negative allegations have been made about out party in order to frighten people about our agenda,” Rached Ghannouchi, its leader, said.

In the remaining hours before voting in Tunisia starts, the battle continues unabated for those who are still undecided on for whom they should cast their ballots or those who are hesitant about participating in the process.

Throughout the elections campaign, parties with an established presence in political activism or with large amounts of financial resources made strong shows even though the campaigning standard has not reached high levels.

“The campaigns have given a sense of indication about the parties and the political figures,” Karim Bin Mansoor, a local media figure, said. “However, Tunisians are still in a state of apprehension generated by the unprecedented political development in the country. Everybody has hoped that the political campaigns would not develop into bitter standoffs between political rivals or campaign targeting.”

The independents, with their overall lack of experience and money, faced formidable challenges reaching out to people eager to understand what was happening.

“It was not easy for many of those who wanted to run and contribute to the democracy festival,” Rached Mansouri, a youth empowerment instructor, said in Sidi Bouzid, the white and blue village perched on top of a high cliff in the northern suburbs of Tunis, the capital.

Sipping his strong and aromatic mint tea with pine nuts, a popular local specialty, in the café des Nattes, the village’s hot spot, Rached brushed aside concerns about what ominous times for the country.

“It is a great development in our history and that of the Arab world,” he said. “Unfortunately, many people did not realise its significance and behaved in the traditional way of ignoring elections and refusing to play an active role. It is obvious that that the people need to be-educated about elections, making choices and supporting what is good for them,” he said.

Too many years of frustration have left their mark on the people, Ahmad Ameri, a teacher drinking his Boga Cidre, a cola-coloured fizzy drink with a distinctive carob flavour, said.

“In all cases, and even in the worst scenario, these elections cannot be as bad as the ones we had for decades,” he said. “Logically, we should expect some difficulties because this is the beginning of a new era, and it is always difficult to start something new. I am sure that we will overcome them,” he said.

For Imene Mohammad, a university graduate who has been closely monitoring the campaigning, optimism should be the key word and the overwhelming feeling in the nation as a new era of good feelings is easing into the country.

“The problem is that the media has been highlighting mainly concerns about the future and raising negative issues about the campaigns,” he said. “We understand they want to do their coverage, but they should do it responsibly by boosting optimism. The people need more encouragement and confidence-building acts and words, like prep talk by a coach before a crucial match. The morale has to be high so that the positive energy reflects well and the outcome is highly satisfactory,” he said.

Main candidates

Ahmad Nejib Chebbi
Ahmad Nejib Chebbi, a prominent lawyer and politician, was born on July 30, 1944, in a family that was highly active in the anti-colonialism struggle before Tunisia’s independence in March 1956.
An outstanding figure of the opposition, he played a leading role in 1983 in the foundation of the Progressive Democratic Party.
His activism started when as a former medical student in Paris, he shifted to the College of Law in Tunisia where he joined the students’ union.
He was first arrested in 1966 and was sentenced in 1970 to 11 years in prison. He was later pardoned, but placed under house arrest.
In 1972, Chebbi left for France where he became involved in the Tunisian Workers movement. In 1974, he was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison.
In 1977, he went back to Tunisia with a group of other militants who included Sihem Bensedrine and Naji Marzouk. He was sentenced following several trials to 32 years in prison.
In 1988, he helped found the Progressive Socialist Rally and was elected secretary general. The party in 2001 changed its name to the Progressive Democratic Party to allow more political tendencies to join it.
In 2004, and two days before the presidential elections, he called for their boycott.
In 2005, he contributed to the launch of the October 18 Committee that brought together members from various parties, including the Islamist Ennahda and independent figures.
As editor of Al Mawqaf, a weekly newspaper published by the party, he faced justice again following the publication of an article that the authorities deemed offensive.
In February 2008, he said that he was running in the 2009 presidential elections. He calls for a reform of the elections laws and calls for the removal of the sponsoring clause stipulating endorsement by at least 30 sitting MPs.
However, on August 25, 2009, Chebbi said that he was withdrawing from the elections, arguing that the minimum requirements for freedom, honesty and transparency could not be fulfilled.
Now he is running as the head of the list presented by his party in Tunis II where 12 other lists, mostly headed by veteran leaders, are competing for seats.

B. Radhia Nasraoui
When a website was launched to campaign for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 to Radhia Nasraoui, the Tunisian activist, many joined the movement, driven by a strong belief that she richly deserved it.
All those who knew Radhia or heard her about her name instinctively associated this strong and determined woman with steady activism in the face of formidable difficulties.
She has been a particularly vociferous voice since the 1970s when as an apprentice lawyer and then as a lawyer, she worked to defend students and poor souls dragged to courts without real defense.
Her tenacity and determination as a lawyer cost her physical attacks, prison terms and mental torment. In 1998, her office was ransacked and her files disappeared, a development that meant she could not have clients.
Her situation was compounded when she married Hammad Hammami, the leader of the Communist movement, and later the Communist party, and a figure familiar with standoffs with the authorities. In 2002, she went on a hunger strike that lasted almost two months to press for the release of her husband.
On January 14, when the largest crowd in the uprising gathered in front of the interior ministry in the Tunisian capital, the most terrible symbol of the regime brutality, demanding the removal of then president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, she was at the forefront with a group of lawyers.
Radhia is running as the head of the Communist Party list in Tunis II, where the most poignant elections are expected to be held between the 13 lists, mostly headed by veteran leaders.

C. Abdul Fattah Morou
Abdul Fattah Mourou, the son of a merchant family of Andalusian origin, was born in Tunis in June 1948. He obtained a degree in the study of law from the University of Tunisia and became a lawyer in 1977.
Thanks to his strong Islamic education, Abdul Fattah preached at several mosques in the 1960s and met Rached Ghannouchi at a religious building in 1969. The pair agreed to launch an Islamic movement, but they were arrested in 1973 in the coastal city of Sousse where they planned to hold a meeting for dozens of people.
The incident led the Islamist group to opt for clandestine action and the Islamic Association decided to move in smaller groups and target people in mosques, universities and schools, but Abdul Fattah remained their top leader.
In 1981, the Movement of Islamic Tendency (Ennahdha) was setup. Abdul Fattah was again arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. He would be arrested one more time.
Abdul Fattah decided to quit Ennahdha and to cease all political activities.
Upon his return from exile in England on January 30, Rached Ghannouchi asked Mourou to oversee the campaign by Ennahdha for the Constituent Assembly elections in October, but Abdul Fattah turned down the offer and insisted he had quit the party.
He is running as an independent within the Democratic Alliance, a centrist alliance of political parties and independent candidates.
He too is running in Tunis II where some of the most formidable competitors are vying for seats.

D. Dr. Moncef Marzouki
D. Dr. Moncef Marzouki, born in July 1945, is one of the best known human rights activists in Tunisia since 1980.
A medical doctor who graduated in 1980 from the University of Strasbourg, France. He later moved back to Tunisia and was a professor of community medicine at the University of Sousse from 1981 until 2000.
He started his political and rights activism in 1980 after he joined the Tunisian League of Human Rights. In 1987, he was elected as deputy president and in 1989 became the president of Africa’s first human rights watchdog.
However, the league was dissolved in June 1992 after it opposed a new law on associations.
Marzouki, determined not to be intimidated, sets up in 1993 the national committee to defend opinion prisoners. The authorities immediately banned it, arguing it was illegal.
Even the human rights league was reinstated in 1993, Marzouki said that he was not interested in a position within the formation.
The activist then announced that he wanted to run for president in 1994. His decision marked a new series of punitive actions against him that included prison terms and the confiscation of his passport.
Marzouki was member of the Cairo-based Arab human rights league, Amnesty International – Tunisia section, chairman of the Arab human rights commission and spokesman for the national council for freedoms in Tunisia.
Marzouki founded the Congress for the Republic in 2001 and has been its chairman, even though the authorities did not recognize it then. He went to Paris in 2001 and returned home on January 18, 2011, four days after the departure of Bin Ali.
The activist has published 16 books in Arabic and four in French, covering wide topics that ranged from medical ethics to human rights and the problems of democratization in the Arab world.
Marzouki is running as head of his party list in the governorate of Nabeul II, to the east of Tunis.

E. Maya Jribi:
Maya is the only woman secretary general of a political party in Tunisia.
Born in 1960 to a politically active father and Algerian mother, she was member of the Sfax science university student council, even though she had no political affiliation then.
In 1983, she joined the Socialist Party when it sought to bring under its umbrella all political activists with leftist tendencies.
As a secretary general of the progressive party, she has often called for fundamental reforms in the areas of politics, economy and management.
“These reforms should be in line with the dignity and rights of all Tunisians and away from any form of ideology and extremism,” she said.
She warned that economic stagnation and insecurity would cause the flight of foreign investments and an increase in the unemployment rate.
Maya will be running in Bin Arous, a governorate south to Tunis. She will have to put up with 12 other leaders in one of the most heatedly-contested constituencies.




About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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