Meet Tunisia’s two presidential contenders: Marzouki and Essebsi

Beji Caid Essebsi and incumbent interim President Moncef Marzouki came to a run-off in the November presidential election. (Photos: Reuters/ AFP)

One is an 88-year-old; the other is 69. The first is a veteran politician; the latter a newcomer. One presidential candidate is an old regime hand; the second is a dissident of the old regime. Both are controversial; and both have been at each other’s throats lately, running contentious campaigns emphasizing how dangerous a victory for their opponent would be for Tunisia’s future. 

Competing against a pool of 27 presidential candidates, Beji Caid Essebsi and incumbent interim President Moncef Marzouki came to a run-off in the November presidential election with 39.5 percent of votes and 33.4 percent respectively.

Read Also: Secular Essebsi leads Tunisia presidential vote, heads for run-off.

Tunisians head to voting polls today to finally choose their first democratically elected president, an event that heralds the final chapter of the Tunisian Revolution. Popular protests against corruption, unemployment, oppression and police brutality in 2011 put an abrupt end to the two-decade rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, plunging Tunisia into the throes of a turbulent democratic transition.

While most of the power will lie in the hand of the prime minister, who is yet to be chosen, the president is responsible for national security, defense and foreign affairs, under the new Tunisian “progressive” constitution, which was adopted in January 2014.

Beji Caid Essebsi

The 88-year-old Essebsi, a French-educated lawyer, is an old disciple of Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba. He began his career defending top nationalist political activists during the French colonial rule.

Following independence, Essebsi served as Bourguiba’s advisor, then interior minister, defense minister, and foreign minister – among many other state posts. Essebsi also served as speaker of the parliament under Bourguiba’s successor, Ben Ali.

He was persuaded to come out of retirement in February 2011 to briefly serve as the prime minister of the second transitional government after the revolution until the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) – the body in charge of drafting the new constitution – elections were held in October of the same year. He is often hailed for managing the country well and restoring stability and security during permiership.

Coming from the Bourguibist school of thought, Essebsi decided to establish his own party, Nidaa Tounes (Arabic for “Tunisia Call”), basing it on the sole premise of counterweighting the then-leading Islamist Ennahda Party and keeping religion out of state institutions. Ennahda had won the majority of popular votes and secured 89 seats in the NCA in the October 2011 elections.

Nidaa Tounes is an aggregation of secular leftists, trade union leaders, businessmen, Constitutionalists or Destourians (adherents of the Bourguiba politics), and “recycled” associates of the Ben Ali regime, whose inclusion has been widely controversial.

Drawing people in with his colloquial language, sense of humor – one not appreciated by many Tunisians – and “old wolf” political experience, Essebsi’s forceful return disrupted the political scene. Several MPs defected their parties and rallied around Essebsi, whose supporters call him by his nickname “Bajbouj.”

Launching its campaign on anti-Islamist platform, and tarring Ennahda as a party at odds with Tunisia’s cosmopolitan nature, Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes won a plurality vote in the October 2014 parliamentary elections, securing 85 seats, followed by Ennahda, with 69 seats. However, Essebsi's long experience is a double-edged sword: he is literally, as well as a metaphorically, an old hand as opposed to his opponent, Marzouki who is almost twenty years younger than him. So what else can Marzouki offer?

Moncef Marzouki

The second Tunisian presidential contender, Moncef Marzouki, is a French-educated physician turned human-rights activist and opposition leader, an author of several publications in French, Arabic and English, and the incumbent interim president of the country.

Aside from leading the Tunisian Human Right League in the 80s and 90s, Marzouki was one of the few Tunisians to dare to contest Ben Ali while in presidency; which subjected him to regime harassment. He was arrested several times, imprisoned, banned from traveling, and placed under house arrest for five years.

He was also sacked from his job and forced to live in exile upon founding his secular center-left Congress for the Republic party in 2001. After several attempts to return to Tunisia and failed initiatives calling for civil disobedience, he was finally able to come back from exile after the revolution and run his party legally.

The Congress for the Republic came in second during the 2011 legislative elections, and joined leading Ennahda, and Ettakatol, which came in fourth, in forming the Troika government. Marzouki became interim president after winning a two-third majority in NCA in December 2011.

In 2012, Marzouki was awarded the UK-based Chatham House prize, and ranked second highest in Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers.

However, Marzouki’s three years of presidency were rocked by the two high-profile political assassinations of Beleid and Brahmi, several terrorist attacks – including one that saw the brutal murder of 14 soldiers near Mount Chambi – a political deadlock, and a declining, already-ailing economy. The instability the country has endured during the transitional period rendered Marzouki incompetent and ineffective in the eyes of his critics.

But it is his alliance with Ennahda, which was marred by a surge in armed radicalism that further stagnated the economy, that worries his critics. The Ennahda-led government was forced to resign last year for a caretaker cabinet to take over following a political dead-end. Ennahda party was also punished during the recent legislative elections and came in second.

Negative campaigns

After the revolution, the Tunisian political arena, and society alike, were divided into two – broadly speaking – ideological camps at odds: secularism versus Islamism. But the legislative vote, and now the presidential ballot, have reopened divisions in the country.

Throughout their campaigns, the two presidential candidates promoted seemingly irreconcilable visions for the country’s future, not missing any chance to stigmatize one another in their discourse.

On the one hand, Essebsi has based his campaign on a “state pride” discourse, promising Tunisians to a return to a Bourguiba-like know-how-to era, which saw less corruption than that of his successor, Ben Ali. Essebsi has also been vicious in his criticism of Marzouki’s ties with the Islamists.

During an interview with a French radio station, Radio Monte Carli (RMC), following the first-round of presidential election, Essebsi said that those who voted for Marzouki are the Islamists along with the more extremist “Salafists Jihadists.”

“Those are all violent parties,” Essebsi said.

"Unfortunately, there will be a division between the Islamists on one side and then all democrats and non-Islamists on the other," he added.

On the other side, Marzouki positioned himself as the revolution’s guardian who is going to protect the country from the return of Ben Ali’s regime, embodied in Nidaa Tounes, and personified in Essebsi. Already holding the majority of seats in the parliament, Essebsi’s victory in the presidential election would bring back the one-party system, Marzouki and his supporters argue. Essebsi is the relic of dictatorial eras with counterrevolutionary intentions, Marzouki often reiterates.

Ben Ali’s tyranny is far form being forgotten in the minds of Tunisians, especially the Islamists. Members of Ennahda were systematically persecuted, tortured and exiled under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

“It is much more than just an election,” said Marzouki during an interview with The New York Times recently. “We are going to decide whether Tunisia will become a democratic state or go back to the old regime.”

“I can also say it is an Arab challenge,” Marzouki said. “I fear this could be the end of the Arab spring.”

Although Ennahda did not field or publically endorse any presidential candidate, most of its base reportedly voted for Marzouki, and will vote for him again.

"For us, the success of the democratic experience is more important than our party's interests," Rached al-Ghannouchi, founder and leader of Ennahda, told NPR.

"Allowing the democratic experience to survive, even with a man from the old regime, will allow us the chance to come back to power in the future. But if the experience fails, then everything will fail and we will enter the world of terrorism and chaos," he added.

Polls are to close at 17:00 GMT on Sunday and preliminary results will be announced between Monday and Wednesday.

With a new constitution, a full parliament elected, and a soon-to-be president, Tunisia stands out as the sole survivor of the Arab Spring, and a democratic presidential election will mark the first peaceful transition of power from the wave of uprisings that plunged much of the Middle East into chaos. A tale of two candidates with the future of one country at stake.

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