(Washington needs the support of both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes to push through its structural adjustment policies pressed on Tunisia in exchange for IMF loans these past few yearsThe main goals, the legal basis for which was apparently achieved in the last days of the country’s constituent assembly, have been to open up Tunisia’s soon to be developed energy sector to foreign investment, as usual on terms unfavorable to Tunisia, and to lift the subsidies on gasoline and electricity. As long as the two parties, that will dominate Tunisian politics in the coming period, cooperate on this, it is not important to Washington which one wins the presidency or dominates the Tunisian political landscape.)

First Round Results: Tunisia’s Presidential Elections

The first round of the Tunisian elections took place November 23. Two of the candidates, Beji Caid Essebsi, leading figure of the Nidaa Tounes Party, won a plurality 39.46% percent of the vote. Not far behind him the incumbent president of Tunisia’s transitional government, Moncef Marzouki, came in second with a strong showing as well – drawing 33.4% of the vote. Hamma Hammami, the leader of Tunisia’s Popular Front, came in third with 7.82%. Businessman Hechmi Hamdi secured 5.75 percent; and the tycoon Slim Riahi received 5.55 percent.

Although “a secular” candidate, Marzouki, the incumbent president, owes his political prominence to his relationship with the Ennahda Party, the Islamic political party that has dominated the Tunisian political scene since the 2011 overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship and who has managed to mismanage the country’s economic and political affairs to an impressive and factional degree. Although Ennahda, recognizing its current unpopularity, and most probably with a little help from friends in Washington DC, decided not to field a candidate for the presidency, it is not a very radical supposition that they stand behind Marzouki, whose own political base has been close to non-existent.

Marzouki also has gained some support from some democratic elements who prefer Marzouki and Ennahda, for all their warts and shortcomings, to Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes Party, which is hardly a party at all frankly and represents to a significant degree the shadow of the Ben Ali regime – Ben Ali’s politics without Ben Ali so to speak – given its strong support from many Ben Ali-era political and economic operatives. Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Maybe not entirely, but it sure smells of it.

Still, that something of a positive nature took place in Tunisia in this presidential election is true enough. As one Tunisian voter, Mouna Jeballi, put it to the British Guardian newspaper, “Now we are the only country in the Arab world who does not know who their president will be until after the vote is finished.” This is in fact the case, although it needs to be noted that contrary to the western press reports, Tunisia’s “transition” has been far from smooth sailing.

The Obama Administration’s Role

The national press here (USA) has touted the Tunisian elections as the only victory of the Arab Spring, with everywhere else – defeat for democracy and war – being the result. SOME truth to this although it is something of an exaggeration as well. Without the active, actually massive intervention of the country’s social movement in huge national demonstrations in Tunis at key fragile moments of the past three years, Tunisia’s “path to democracy” could have easily been turned into the kind of rubble that now Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt are experiencing.

Furthermore with U.S. Middle East – North Africa (MENA) policy in something close to shambles, the Obama Administration was anxious that Tunisia not be yet another MENA Obama Administration political failure. Washington has put considerable pressure on the post-Ben Ali political parties with the usual combinations of threats and offers of financial support. It has monitored this presidential election very, very closely. It is not accidental that the journeys of most of Tunisia’ current major political players, be it Essebsi, Ghannouchi (leader of the Ennahda Party) or others, pass through Washington D.C. and this rather frequently and that these parties have set up (or tried to) their own lobbying groups.

The Obama Administration, in need of a kind of political lily pad, island of relative stability in a sea of MENA turmoil, has sent one of its most astute career diplomats, Jake Walles, to “help navigate” the transition. Unlike many present U.S. diplomats who are offered ambassadorships as a result of hefty campaign contributions to presidential aspirants (and thus are something akin to functional idiots in their jobs as ambassadors) Walles is among the State Departments “best and brightest.” Until he became U.S. ambassador to Tunisia in 2012 he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs was responsible for U.S. policy with respect to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. He is fluent in French and Arabic.

For the most part, national and international observers declared the election credible and well administered, and said it was a positive achievement for the country four years after a popular uprising overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired pro-democracy movements across the region. In some quarters, especially in the main stream U.S. media, these elections are considered “a major step in Tunisia’s transition to democracy following revolution in 2011.”

Good, But Not Perfect

Still the elections were, as even the NY Times noted, far from perfect.

The most noticeable shortcoming was low voter turnout, a fact noted but de-emphasized by mainstream media outlets in North America and Europe. Just prior to the presidential contest, the Tunisian election commission predicted a 60% voter turnout, but that proved to be wide of the mark. Only about 40% of Tunisia’s 8 million eligible voters, some 3.2 million, felt voting important enough to show up at the polls…which translates into (40%x39.46) less than 15% of the voting population actually supporting Essebsi and a mere 13.36% standing 40%x33.4) with Marzouki – not exactly anything close to “a mandate” for either candidate.

• In a country with a high proportion of young people, much of Tunisia’s youth did not bother to vote. As youth played such a central role in demise of the Ben Ali regime, this suggests that those who made the revolution are not those in the country’s political driver’s seat today.
• One international observer organization, the International Republican Institute, whose Board of Directors includes John McCain and Brent Scowcroft, raised “concerns” about “numerous complaints stating that candidates had offered financial compensation in exchange for votes. In the past, accusations of large-scale financial meddling from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among others, in support of various factions, was reported to be nothing short of rampant.
• The failure for most of the presidential candidates – there were 22 in all – to address the economic crisis which had fueled the 2011 uprising in the first place. Even the I.R.I noted, according to a poll it released in August of this year, that 86 percent of Tunisians say that parties have done little or nothing to address their [economic and social] needs

The Unspoken Winner: the Washington Consensus

My initial impression is that there is less here than meets the eye and that Washington in doesn’t particularly care at this point who wins the run-off. Both of the leading contenders are strong, if not ardent advocates of both the Washington Consensus (i.e., U.S. economic policy towards Third World countries based on IMF structural adjustment criteria) and U.S. and French regional security concerns that at their heart and soul deal with controlling the region’s energy and mineral wealth.

If that is true and I believe this to be the case, regardless of who wins, either one will not steer his country’s economic fate very far from Washington’s or Paris’ direction. In exchange, Tunisia will be “permitted” to continue to engage in its little exercise in democracy. A cynical view? Perhaps, but until it is proven inaccurate I’ll stick with it. What I find of interest is, despite the well-known differences between the parties on the religious-secular divide in Tunisian politics, how similar are their economic and security programs.

• Both the more “Islamic” (tied to the Moslem Brotherhoods) Ennahda Party and the more secular (jammed packed with political and economic players from the Ben Ali days) Nidaa Tounes Party – if they have an economic policy at all – are both neoliberal in their direction. Both are committed to implementing the structural adjustment reforms agreed to by the former transitional government that, in exchange for needed aid, will help pry open the country’s soon to be developed energy sector while ending subsidies on gasoline and electricity. In fact, Washington concludes that only with the joint support of both of these parties, can such reforms – which have produced 30 years of failure and misery in Third World countries – be successfully pushed through.
• The criticisms that each launches against the other are accurate. Ennahda charges Nidaa Tounes with being “old wine in a new bottle,” i.e., the resurrected, only slightly modernized RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, called Constitutional Democratic Rally in English) of the Ben Ali days.
Nidaa Tounes responds with their valid criticisms of Ennahda’s extreme religious factionalism of these past few years, its open collusion with the country’s brown-shirt Salafist elements (now in armed struggle against the government in Tunisia’s western and southern regions) and its utter incompetence at running the country – which it essentially has done – these past three “post-Ben Ali” years.

Ennahda has enjoyed a great deal of political and financial support from outside sources, particularly from Turkey and Qatar, two centers of Muslim Brotherhood activity. Nidaa Tounes, less of a party and more of a scramble of bourgeois elements whose calls for democracy veil an essentially compradore bourgeois soul, has gotten much support from the foreign multinational corporations and countries that have long profited from their Tunisian connection (France, Italy) as well as from Washington. One should not underestimate the organizational talent of these Ben Ali holdovers, active in both the RCD and Tunisia’s major institutions in times past. Washington first supported Ennahda, and then after first Tunisian Salafists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tunis (could not have happened without some element of complicity with Ennahda) and the Egyptian coup which brought down the Morsi government, began to seriously reign in Ghannouchi and his cohorts.

Until now, these past three years, every time a decrepit Tunisian government has veered to the right, the people of Tunisia in their great numbers have arisen to halt the drift backwards – whether to 7th century Islam or to 1980s Reagan-Bush economic policies. Regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential run off two weeks from now, I would hope that Tunisians remain vigilant for what lies in store and that they keep their eye on the prize: a more democratic and more prosperous country. Half a loaf is not enough. But then they’ve come through a bruising period “still standing”…and in a region which has descended into such generalized turmoil that is saying something.

Rob Prince is a Senior Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. He frequently writes about economic and political developments in North Africa, especially Algeria and Tunisia.