The limited victory of Tunisian secularists

Published 07.11.2014 02:01

When 88-year old Beji Caid el-Sebsi, who previously worked with former president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, and ousted president, Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, won the 2014 parliamentary elections in Tunisia, where the turnout was less than three years ago, Western media outlets and secular-liberal circles experienced a naive sense of excitement. It would not be wrong to suggest that statements and analyses to the effect of "seculars can win elections too" lacks sophistication. It is, however, not difficult to grasp this sense of excitement. After all, secularists in the Middle East and North Africa had lost power through elections and reclaimed their influence through military coups since the 1990s.

After being banned, the Islamist Ennahda Movement had partial electoral success through independent candidates in 1989 and the subsequent period of oppression, the Islamic Salvation Front's 1991 victory in Algeria was followed by a bloody coup, the Welfare Party's success in the 1995 elections in Turkey and the Feb. 28 process and Hamas winning Palestinian elections in 2006 and the subsequent military coup co-sponsored by the West and Israel, the Ennahda Movement's landslide victory five years later and its reduction into a minority partner in the coalition and finally, the Muslim Brotherhood's victory in the 2012 Egyptian elections and the bloody coup of July 2013 are examples of this power struggle.

Secularists in the West and the Middle East who have taken a deeper interest in the Tunisian elections than Tunisians themselves were not motivated by curiosity. Instead, their concern reflects the shame of political actors who have only come to power through military interventions since the 1980s. As such, they were quick to carve out a grand narrative out of the Islamists' first election defeat without caring to see who won the contest. In the aftermath of the Tunisian elections, secularists traded the depressing universe of Islamophobia and fear of Islamists with a major confidence boost. Unable to raise questions about the winner, they instead concentrate on who lost the race and what it means. As a matter of fact, they are unwilling to engage the question of who won, what policies will be implemented and, most importantly, how and why the winner triumphed. Asking such questions would deny the secularists the pleasures of shallow arguments of how the Islamists lost and the secularists won.

To be fair, the legacy of the secularists' past experiences with democracy in the Middle East and North Africa represents destruction, which outclasses fanatics in Afghanistan and Iraq, i.e., al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), that emerged after decades of civil war. One cannot account for such heavy destruction except from the rage resulting from defeat. If Algeria, for instance, were to enter a conventional war, the number of casualties would probably be close to the heavy toll of the 1990s. Similarly, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's military coup claimed half of the lives as didthe 1967 Arab-Israeli war - not to mention the damage to the nation's economy. Just a quick recollection of the post-Feb. 28 developments in Turkey would provide a pretty good idea about the rest of the aforementioned countries.

When the Ennahda Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, the hegemonic secular-liberal discourse ignored the entire rationale of electoral contests and preached that the winners ought to share power with the defeated. In the end, they succeeded - in Egypt and Tunisia, the victors ended up allocating the majority of political power to their opponents. They not only appointed opposition leaders to key cabinet posts but also made concessions that no popularly-elected Western government could imagine. Still, the losers were dissatisfied.

In Tunisia, the Ennahda Movement - which claimed 60 more seats than the runner-up - had to watch members of the opposition claim the presidency, the office of speaker of the parliament and several ministries. To put things in perspective, the Nidaa Tounes party won only 15 more seats than the Ennahda Movement in the most recent parliamentary elections. It remains questionable whether the secularists will be able to implement everything they demanded from the Islamists. It also remains to be seen what will become of the arguments, i.e., participatory democracy, reconciliation, power-sharing and the other 65 percent, they repeatedly invoked since 2011.

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