In less than two weeks, Tunisia’s urgent presidential elections is scheduled to take place, on 13th to 15th of September. The 26 candidates, approved by the Supreme Electoral Commission, including women, youth, secularists, Islamists, and high-profile officials, have already launched their electoral campaigns, since the beginning of the month. The most important of all candidates in this tranquil competition are two: First; Sheikh Abdel Fattah Mourou; the prominent political Islamist and lawyer – or, the “rare bird” – as described by Rachid Ghannoushi, his lifetime friend and co-founder of the Islamist Ennahda Party. And, second, Abdel Karim Al-Zubaidi; Minister of Defense under Essebsi, who enjoys an extended political and bureaucratic experience in public policy and administration.
The presidential elections scene, in Tunisia, looks like another, yet more peaceful, round of the conflict that has been going on since Arab Spring revolutions, between Islamists yearning to establish their Caliphate system of governance over the ruins of the shaken national states, and secularists pushing back in an attempt to preserve the well-being and continuity of the national states.
Tunisia is the new battle field for this ongoing conflict, and the rules of the game this time is much more complicated, which poses the question: of all secularists, Islamists, and bureaucrats running for the president’s seat, who has the highest potential to win it?
To begin with, the large number of candidates, which some may celebrate as a reflection of a healthy democratic context, does not bode well for supporters of Tunisia's civil or secular movement. Of the 97 applicants, 26 were accepted by the Supreme Elections Committee. The number of applicants is disturbingly massive, and the number of finalists is still too much for a relatively small country with a population of less than ten million people who are demographically harmonious.
This large number of candidates reflects the disintegration of the secular political elite, and a rivalry based on narcissistic prejudices, rather than a balanced political vision and coordination. This may, eventually, lead to the fragmentation of votes among supporters of the secular movement. In contrast, the supporters of Islamists are usually more coherent when it comes to voting in elections; as they follow the orders of their Supreme Guide, regardless of the identity or number of candidates that represent their movement.
Nevertheless, the supporters of the secular movement, may fall into the trap of emotionally-motivated voting, out of their desire to stand up for human rights values they cherish. In other words, some secular votes may easily be wasted on incompetent candidates only because they are women or youth; just for the sake of making a statement in support of women’s rights or youth right to substitute the old politicians, who have been occupying the political leadership for decades.
This apprehension is heightened if we look at the candidates' programs. Ironically, all candidates offered similar proposals, despite their different political agendas and backgrounds. They may be summarized in two points: improving the deteriorating economy and upgrading the international status of Tunisia. Most Tunisians know that those exquisitely written and verbalized proposals are no more than hollow promises of a rosy future that neither the state can afford nor the presidential candidate can achieve.
The reason is not only that the proposed programs and projects require huge funds and resources not owned by the Tunisian state, which depends on external loans; but also, because the currently applied system of governance makes the president of the state incapable of making independent decisions, free from the resistance of the other two co-presidents of government and parliament.
Out of fear of falling back into dictatorship, the post-revolution constitution in Tunisia, tailored a system of governance that is neither presidential nor parliamentarian. Rather, it is based on balancing the decision-making process between three authorities – or “presidencies” as the Tunisians call it: The President of the State, the Prime Minister (the president of the government), and the Chair of Parliament (the president of legislation).
This means that whoever becomes the president, will be forced to involve the other two presidents in deciding about how to proceed with implementing his own electoral promises. The other two presidents, usually, come from political parties that carries an agenda that is, not only different, but contradictory to the president’s agenda. In theory, the “three presidencies” may look like a brilliant democratic system that involves all and excludes none. But, in reality, it is extremely difficult for a country to achieve any tangible progress under three presidents, whose agendas and visions are inconsistent.
The politically aware people of Tunisia know that they cannot depend on rosy promises and inapplicable electoral programs in deciding about their next president of the state. Therefore, the people’s choice will, most likely, depend on the political history and experience of each candidate, in addition to candidate’s personal integrity and reputation.
Based on this criterion, Dr. Abdel Karim Al-Zubaidi is the candidate with the highest potential to become the next president of Tunisia. In addition to his personal clean records and long experience in high-profile bureaucratic and political positions, he served as the Minister of Defense. The military is highly respected and admired by the Tunisian people because of its bias to the will of the people against Ben Ali’s regime and declining Ben Ali’s orders to shoot the protesters in the 2010/2011 revolution.
On the other hand, the return of Sheikh Mourou, in an attempt to beautify Ennahdha's face and reintroduce Islamists' agenda on a plate of devious moderation, in an attempt to rescue the party’s eroded popularity, does not succeed in deceiving the Tunisian voters, as expected. Besides, the secular candidates, who are publicly allied with the Islamists are not properly welcomed by the Tunisian people; including prominent politicians like Youssef Chahed, who served as the Prime Minister under Essebsi.
Certainly, Tunisia will not slip back into dictatorship. The Tunisian people are showing high discipline and respect to democratic practices, so far. However, the risk of slipping back into the hands of Islamists does still exist. Uniting behind one secular candidate is the only way to push away this risk and make sure that the national state in Tunisia shall continue to proceed its tough path towards liberal democratization and better economic future.