Since the ouster of long-time dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has been the bellwether for the revolutions that have rocked the Middle East. Three years into their revolution, Tunisians stand at a crossroads: a choice between “protecting” the revolution and sacrificing some revolutionary gains for the sake of stability. Last month’s presidential elections are, in the eyes of many hopeful Tunisians, the capstone to a tumultuous period of post-revolutionary instability. Over twenty candidates ran in the first round elections, but to many external observers and Tunisians it was a race between two candidates that embody the fierce debate occurring within the country. In one camp is the establishment candidate: Beji Caid Essebsi. A remnant of not only Ben Ali’s government but the government of his predecessor Habib Bourgiba, Essebsi has campaigned on providing Tunisians with a modicum of security after three years of uncertainty.
Tunisians view the 88-year-old with hesitancy: his party, Nidaa Tounes, benefitted from a recent ruling that allowed former regime officials to run in elections. Leftist and secular, Essebsi’s party won a plurality of parliamentary seats in elections last month, garnering 86 seats out of 217. His campaign has been anything but clean, however, and rivals have blasted him for engaging in smear tactics. Earlier this week, he accused his opponent, Moncef Marzouki, of being the candidate of “jihadist Salafists,” a comment that sparked protests in southern cities.
Marzouki, on the other hand, is a doctor and long-time human rights activist who spent many of the pre-revolution years in exile in France before returning to become interim president. Despite his commitment to the principles of the revolution, many Tunisians hold him responsible for the country’s lack of economic growth. His campaign is one of counterattacks and reactions: he’s blasted Essebsi for the smear tactics, and he’s only just starting to court female and youth voters. He’s also filed suits against Essebsi for allegedly buying votes. His party, the Congress for the Republic, is also top-heavy, with much of its success credited to supporters of Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tunisian wing that decided not to field a candidate for the presidency and instead threw its weight behind Marzouki.