A self-styled, secular, modernist party called Nidaa Tounes won against the Islamist Ennahda party in the Tunisian election this week. For many, the subsequent headline – “Secularist party wins Tunisia elections” – will seem more impressive than the fact Tunisia just completed its second genuinely competitive, peaceful elections since 2011. Indeed, in a region wracked by extremism and civil war, the secularists’ victory will strike many as further proof that Tunisia is moving forward and is the sole bright spot in a gloomy region. Some may prematurely celebrate, yet again, the death of political Islam, arguing that Tunisians achieved through the ballot box what Egyptians achieved through a popular coup, rejecting the Brotherhood and its cousin-like movements once and for all. We should exercise caution, however, in labelling Nidaa Tounes’s victory part of a seamless sweep of democratic achievements, or seeing Sunday’s vote as a clear referendum against all varieties of political Islam. Despite feeling kinship with the party because of its secular label, westerners understand surprisingly little about Nidaa Tounes, mainly because they’ve tended to hold the magnifying glass of critical inquiry up to Islamists but not secularists over the past three years. Counter-intuitively, Nidaa Tounes’s internal structure is noticeably more authoritarian than Ennahda, which boasts representative decision-making structures from its grassroots to national leadership.
Nidaa Tounes, founded in mid-2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran of both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, is described, even by members of its executive bureau, as a patchwork of political tendencies – an electoral front comprised primarily of leftists and individuals associated with Ben Ali’s now-dismembered RCD party and organised around its one charismatic leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. Parties are united almost exclusively by opposition to Ennahda, which they caricature as retrogressive, uncultured and uncompromising.
Leftist fears that the RCDists would be over-represented in internal elections prevented Nidaa Tounes from holding a party congress. Instead the party has made key decisions – including nominating Essebsi as presidential candidate and selecting its parliamentary lists – in a top-down fashion, prompting a series of resignations this summer. Party insiders have also raised concern about the prominent role of Essebi’s son, Hafedh, and say Nidaa Tounes might unravel if Essebsi either fails to be elected in the 26 November presidential vote or dies while Nidaa is in power. Such concerns raise important questions about the party’s sustainability and whether it will be able to overcome its own lack of internal democracy to consolidate Tunisia’s newborn democratic structures.