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Tunisia’s Presidential Elections: A Lifeline to the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Tunisian people, impressively, passed another test to the coherence and solidness of their newly founded democratic state, following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi, last month.

The death of Caid Essebsi took place amidst a hurricane of political and economic complications that has been submerging the country, for a while. On one hand, a serious economic crisis has been brewing, for over a year, with no effective solutions applicable in the short term. On the other hand, the revolutionary and unprecedented privileges given to Tunisian women, under Caid Essebsi’s rule, including Muslim women’s right to equal inheritance and inter-marriage under civil law, are still igniting heated debates between secularist and Islamist parties.

Yet, all concerned parties, including the Islamists and opposition, reacted to Caid Essebsi’s death by showing high levels of political discipline.

If a similar force major event had happened in some other Arab Spring country, one could hardly expect to see such a quiet farewell to the deceased president and such a smooth acceptance of the power transition to the Chairman of Parliament. Instead, we would have seen the dramatic fall of the state by the death of its head and reckless attempts by opposition political groups to prove their worthiness of the newly availed vacuum in power by flexing their “street muscles;” i.e. initiating protests and acts of street riot.

That is exactly what is making Tunisia’s stance impressive to the observer. Every political group, on the Tunisian political spectrum, decided to wait and invest their resources and energy for the democratic battle of the early presidential elections, scheduled in September.

Certainly, the high level of political awareness and maturity of the Tunisian people was the main motivator behind the political group’s decision to avoid political street fights and aim for victory in a democratic battle. Caid Essebsi’s death was not the first test of the Tunisian people’s determination to build and preserve a democratic state.

The Tunisian people faced a harsher challenge, in 2013, when they succeeded in peacefully expelling the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. While Egyptians resorted to street protesting and nonviolent activism to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power, after the Islamist group refused to hold early elections, the Tunisian people successfully ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power using elections and the power of democracy. Witnessing the tragic failure and fall of their Egyptian counterparts, the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood had no option but to give up and comply with people’s demands.

The upcoming presidential elections in Tunisia are critical in defining, not only the future of Tunisia but also the future of the Middle East region, in terms of the potential return of Islamist groups to the political scene. After their defeat in Egypt and Tunisia, in 2013, followed by several Arab countries' decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, most of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders and high-profile members fled to Qatar, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The scattered leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the growing rifts between the leaders and their middle assistants and base members in Egypt, coupled with several failed endeavors to negotiate reconciliation with the Egyptian regime, made the group lose hope in returning to the Middle East region, at least in the foreseeable future.

However, the new vacuum in power in Tunisia revived the Muslim Brotherhood’s hopes of sneaking back to the peak point of the political stage, not only in Tunisia but the whole Arab region.

Tunisia’s presidential elections might be a lifeline for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it also might be the last nail in Muslim Brotherhood’s coffin. Only the Tunisian people and their choices in the upcoming presidential elections shall determine the answer.

With cautious optimism, we may hardly expect that the highly politically active and educated people of Tunisia would repeat the same emotional mistake they committed, after the Arab Spring revolutions, by voting for the Muslim Brotherhood. We may, even, argue that the dominating francophone culture in the Tunisian society may make people more inclined to reject Islamist’s return to power.

But, as the saying goes: in politics, as in love, one can hardly predict what may happen next.

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