Tunisian elections and the story of Mahabba

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Mohammed Hechmi Hamdi, Founder of Tayyar al-Mahabba

Around the world, people are celebrating the long awaited success of the Arab Spring reflected in the successful elections taking place in Tunisia. As Libya and Syria continue to be mired in civil war and Egypt suffers from the military coup that ended any hope for a democratic process in the country, Tunisia now symbolises a successful transition from a dictatorship to a genuine democracy. At least, this is currently the narrative being propagated in the global media.

The above conclusion demonstrates a flagrant ignorance of the internal politics within Tunisia. Instead of being a true example of a successful democratic transition, Tunisia reflects an example of how the established order successfully stifled the voices that threatened to change the political landscape.

In the landmark elections of 2011, a London-based media entrepreneur shocked Tunisia and the established media by securing a majority in Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution. The success of Dr Mohammed Hechmi Hamdi (‘Hamdi’), and his Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition), did not stop there as he swept up a total of 28 seats and the second largest number of votes across the nation.

As the media scrambled to understand how they had missed the possibility of this surprise, the electoral commission convened to decide how they would respond to this unexpected result. The commission decided that irregularities were found amongst a number of Hamdi’s lists and cancelled Aridha’s seats in Sidi Bouzid and a number of areas across the country. What followed was a transgression on the principle of neutrality as the journalists present at the conference stood up applauding the decision and began to sing the national anthem.

Sidi Bouzid responded and riots took place. As the situation deteriorated, the commission reversed its decision, finding Hamdi innocent and restoring his seats in Sidi Bouzid.

Many analysts at the time revised their predictions following Aridha’s success and concluded that as Hamdi and Nahda both represented conservative trends, it was only natural to assume that they would form a majority bloc and implement conservative agendas. Hamdi should have been an example of a thriving democracy that signified the beginning of a new generation of politics. However when Hamadi Jabaali of the Nahda party, who would later become Prime Minister, was asked on Aljazeera on results night as to how the party would respond to Hamdi’s surprise victory, Jabaali bluntly replied: “we will not enter into any sort of alliance with this group regardless of the results”. The analysts who had predicted an alliance were unaware of the acrimonious history between Hamdi and Nahda (Hamdi was a former member of the Nahda party and the leader of its student wing in the 80’s before resigning from the party in 1992), and the latter sought other allies in the secular party CPR and Ettakatol and eventually formed the ruling ‘troika’.

Hamdi announced that he would work with the new government and was content to take the place of the opposition to ensure a ‘healthy democracy’. However, Hamdi’s bloc was struck by a series of defections by his own MPs to two prominent businessmen; Selim Riahi and Bahri Jlassi. As Hamdi’s bloc began to disintegrate, he called for a ban on ‘political tourism’ and appealed for the implementation of a law similar to that in the United Kingdom whereby an MP who no longer wished to be a member of a party would have to resign their seat, triggering a by-election. He argued that it was immoral and an injustice that an MP could secure votes by virtue of being a member of a particular party only to take those votes elsewhere upon taking his seat in parliament.

The Bill was struck down by the ruling parties and Hamdi was left with seven of his original 28 MPs. To add further injury, Prime Minister Jabaali permitted some defectors to use the name ‘Aridha Chaabia Reformist trend’, which Hamdi claimed threatened to confuse his electorate. When his protests fell on deaf ears Hamdi declared that he was changing the name of Aridha Chaabia to ‘Tayyar al Mahabba’ (the loving trend) based on the Prophetic saying ‘none of you believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself’.

There is no doubt that Hamdi benefitted from appearing on Almustakillah Television in 2011 and its impact cannot be overstated. In 2001, Le Monde newspaper reported the channel had succeeded in ‘shaking the very foundations of the Ben Ali government’ when Tunisian opposition members such as Moncef Marzouki and leaders of the leftist parties (amongst others) were invited to express their views that were being suppressed by the Ben Ali regime. Furthermore, Hamdi’s manifesto, which focused on the establishment of a free national health service and a benefits system for half a million unemployed, resonated with ordinary citizens who saw the manifesto as an answer to the issues that led to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. This, alongside Hamdi’s local Tunisian dialect, led critics to accuse him of using his ‘regional’ background to secure ‘regional’ votes.

However, Hamdi was struck when the electoral commission announced that candidates for the 2014 elections were not permitted to appear on international media. Hamdi attempted to negotiate with the commission, citing that the local media refused to invite him and afford him equal time to that given to the other parties on their platforms. He further argued that they did not offer him the right of reply when guests would question the credibility of his manifesto. The commission were unyielding in their stance and Hamdi began to search for other means to propagate his manifesto.

However as the months went by, local media, including the national television stations did not invite Hamdi to participate as a guest and provided significant air time to parties such as Nida (which did not participate in the original elections), Aridha defectors, and the very businessmen who had formed political blocs from those defectors. Moreover, members of Tayyar Mahabba were only ever invited as part of a panel of four or five guests, meaning that they received a disproportionate time to address the population. Even during their limited time, they were constantly interrupted by their hosts and prevented from effectively conveying their manifesto. Hamdi was therefore powerless to repeat his successful campaign of 2011 as he persistently appealed to be afforded a platform from which to convey his manifesto to the electorate. All the while, major local television channels regularly broadcasted speeches, rallies and interviews conducted by the leaders of Nahda and Nida; even on election night at the expense of other major parties.

The result was that in the months leading up to the elections, Hamdi had no way of effectively addressing the population. This was in contrast to the numerous and regular television and radio interviews granted to the other parties such as Nida, Nahda, CPR and Ettakatol on prime time national television. Even up to the final day of campaigning, both leaders of Nahda and Nida appeared on a number of major local television channels calling upon voters to back them.

There is of course one final factor explicitly mentioned by President Marzouki on a local major television channel where he pleaded with Tunisian citizens not to sell their votes to ‘corrupt money’. Although difficult to prove, it is more difficult in the Tunisian context to assume that this had no role in the elections.

In light of the above, it comes as no surprise that Hamdi has gone from 28 seats in 2011 to one seat in 2014. Hamdi is an example of how the establishment effectively isolated a genuine threat to the political landscape. Therefore, claims that Tunisia is an example of a successful democratic transition should be qualified with a statement that just as Ben Ali shut out the voices of opposition, the established order successfully shut out the voice of Tayyar al-Mahabba; setting a dangerous precedent for the future.

Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. He has extensive experience reporting across the Middle East by virtue of having been a television presenter for Almustakillah Television for the past seven years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Follow Sami on Twitter @SALHACHIMI and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SALHACHIMI.