February 1, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1140

The Rise of The Secular Camp In Tunisia

February 1, 2015 | By Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
Tunisia, North Africa | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1140

On December 31, 2014, Beji Caid Essebsi, aka BCE, was sworn in as Tunisia's president, after winning 55.68% of the vote to interim president Moncef Marzouki's 44.32%.[1] Essebsi, leader of the progressive and secular party Nidaa Tounes ("Call for Tunisia"), was directly elected by a plurality system and, in accordance with the Consitution, will serve a five-year term. Nidaa Tounes, formed in 2012 by Essebsi, also won a relative majority in the October 26 legislative elections, the country's first since the ratification of its new constitution in January 2014.[2] Although numerous parties and candidates had thrown their hats into the ring, the Tunisian media treated the legislative elections as primarily between two parties, Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist party Ennahda. Progressive voices in Tunisia viewed the legislative election in Tunisia as a battle between modernism and secularism (represented by Nidaa Tounes) and obscurantism/Islamism (represented by Ennahda). Essebsi's victory was saluted by progressive voices in Tunisia as the country's will to steer the revolution of January 14, 2011 towards a secular path.

The new president of Tunisia, Beji Caïd Essebsi (Source: Kapitalis, Tunisia, December 22, 2014).

The Parliamentary Elections Of October 26, 2014

On October 26, 2014, Tunisians went to the polls in the parliamentary elections, the first since the adoption of the country's new constitution in January 2014. Nidaa Tounes won a relative majority with 86 seats in the 217-seat Assembly of the Representatives of the People,[3] Tunisia's legislative branch of government, beating the Islamist Ennahda party, which won 69 seats.[4] The first speaker of Tunisian's unicameral Assembly is Mohammed Ennaceur, deputy leader of Nidaa Tounes.

According to Tunisian editorialist Moncef Dhambri,[5] these elections, and the victory of Nidaa Tounes, represent a "correction" of the 2011 election, when Ennahda won a relative majority and a troika government comprising Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic (CpR), and Ettakatol was created. Dhambri writes:

"...In June 2012, when the decision to create Nidaa Tounes was taken, a correction of the post-revolutionary course took place, and the Tunisian political arena inexorably took the path, as promoted and fostered by BCE, of rebalancing.

"Today, it is an accomplished fact: The Islamist party Ennahda, after the legislative elections of last October 26, was reduced to its correct value, along with its allies of Ettakatol and of the Congress for the Republic (CpR), which succumbed to the temptation of forming an alliance with the Islamists and which were entirely eliminated (such as in the case of Mustapha Ben Jaafar [former Constituent Assembly president and Ettakol founder]) or which, in the future, will have to content themselves with playing a secondary role (concerning Moncef Marzouki's party)."

Emblem of Nidaa Tounes

However, Nidaa Tounes' victory in the legislative elections was also defined as "poisoned."[6] The secular party hasn't actually won an absolute majority, but a relative one, and for this reason Nidaa Tounes needs to form a coalition in order to form a government. Many progressive commentators feared that Nidaa Tounes would form a coalition with Ennahda, which in 2011 won a relative majority,[7] and which now has lost the first position but managed to preserve a strategic one, by winning 31.8% of the seats.

The First Round: November 23 Presidential Elections

A month after the parliamentary elections, on November 23, 2014, Tunisians went to the polls for the presidential elections, the first since the Jasmine Revolution and the subsequent fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. However, on November 23, none of the several candidates secured an absolute majority. A second round was set for December 21.

The candidates who passed to the second round were Beji Caid Essebsi, with 39.46% in the first round, and Moncef Marzouki, who is the founder of the CpR party and had been interim president since being elected to the post in 2011 by the Constituent Assembly, with 33.43%. The second round of the elections, between Essebsi and Marzouki, was a battle between two political figures that embodied the bipolarization of political life in the country. On the one side was Essebsi, the leader of a liberal and secular party, and on the other side was Marzouki,[8] known as "Tartour" ("insignificant" in Arabic, meaning that he could be pushed in any direction), and whose presidency has been criticized for having abandoned liberal values and for having being supported by Ennahda. In an interview with France 24 TV, Essebsi himself declared that Marzouki's presidential campaign had been organized by Ennahda.[9] He also mentioned that among Marzouki's supporters were Salafists and the League for the Protection of the Revolution, considered a paramilitary movement close to Ennahda.[10]

The Islamist party Ennahda did not have a candidate in the race. According to Tunisian editorialist Rachid Barnat,[11] the reason for this is that the party knew it had no chance of winning. Barnat wrote: "Tunisians should also ask themselves why Islamists are not directly presenting a candidate and prefer to more or less openly support someone else! The reason is simply that they know all too well that they have absolutely no chance, and in case they presented somebody directly, it would show that they are a giant with feet of clay, with a pernicious ideology which has received only a few votes (800,000 at most, of a total of 11 million Tunisians)."

Woman representing Tunisia: "My future? I'd like to place it in good hands." Source: La troisieme republique tunisienne, October 16, 2014.

The Second Round: Essebsi's Victory

In the second round, Beji Caid Essebsi won with 55.68% of the vote, against Marzouki's 44.32%, and was sworn in as Tunisian president on December 31, 2014.

Tunisian editorialist Moncef Dhambri stressed that the Tunisian people had handed Nidaa Tounes a double victory, as the country needs a progressive party in order to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring. He wrote:[12]

"[Nidaa Tounes] seized, within the short space of two months (the October 26 legislative elections and the second round of the December 21 presidential elections) the legislative and executive powers.

"Endowed with such a majority, Nidaa Tounes will be able to work and put all the country to work in order to prove right all those who, in Tunisia and abroad, believed that Tunisia could succeed where all the other Arab Springs [in other countries] have failed.

"By placing [their] trust in Nidaa Tounes and by granting [this party] all the powers, the Tunisian people will certainly and insistently pretend that all the promises made by BCE's party, in the course of the legislative and presidential campaigns, will be implemented. The people who voted for Nidaa Tounes and against Ennahda and its allies are expecting that Mr. Caid Essebsi [BCE] and his people will find a rapid solution to the problems inherited from the old regime, and to all the crises experienced by the country since Ben Ali fled – and which became even worse when affairs of state were managed by the people from Ennahda...

"BCE and the leadership of Nidaa Tounes kept on repeating that they will not rule alone and that they will try to bring together, in their mission to rescue the country, all the people of good will and all the competencies that might contribute to a new start.

"In the next five years, success in the conduct of affairs of state will depend on the ability that will or will not be shown by the Nidaa people to convince Tunisians that even though their expectations have been deferred for too long, they must wait a little longer. Disparities among regions, the weak economic growth, the endemic unemployment, and the drawbacks and delays afflicting Tunisia will not be solved overnight.

"A revolution has a price. A democracy must be deserved. The dignity of a people and the establishment of justice also carry a very high price.

"The good electoral choices made by Tunisia on October 26 and December 21, 2014 certainly represent a good step forward."

The Powers Of The Tunisian President

The Tunisian political system can be defined as semi-presidential.[13] The president of the Tunisian Republic ensures respect for the Constitution, and guarantees the territorial integrity of the country and the independence of the state. The president can set the country's defense, foreign affairs, and internal security agendas, together with the prime minister; he is commander in chief of the armed forces and presides over the highest national security institutions. He also appoints senior officials, such as the Mufti of the Republic and the governor of the Central Bank, following proposals by the prime minister and with the approval of the absolute majority of the members of the Assembly. The president can ratify international treaties, accredit ambassadors abroad, and issue pardons, and can also send bills introduced by the Assembly for a second deliberation. He also has the power to dissolve the Assembly.[14]

Tunisian commentator Rachid Barnat explained explains that the Tunisian president "will play a vital role," as "he is the person who is going to inspire and direct the policy of the country both at home and abroad." Barnat underlines that the president "will play an even more important role due to the fact that no absolute majority came out of the [legislative] elections and that he will have to facilitate the formation of alliances for the good of the country."[15]

Essebsi: Following In The Footsteps Of Bourguiba

President Beji Caid Essebsi, 88, is the founder of Nidaa Tounes, which was established June 16, 2012 after the post-revolution 2011 elections, to deal with the emergence of extremism and violence that threatened public and individual liberties.[16] Essebsi graduated from the Paris Law Faculty in 1950 and began his law practice in 1952. As a student, he joined the Tunisian liberal and nationalist party Neo Destour, which sought to free Tunisia from the French protectorate. After Tunisian independence in 1956, he served as an advisor to the first Tunisian president and Neo Destour cofounder Habib Bourguiba, who pursued a program of secularization of the country.

Beji Caid with President Habib Bourguiba (source:

Essebsi's political career can be summarized as follows:[17]

· In 1956, following the country's independence from France, Essebsi served as an advisor to the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba.

· In 1965, Essebsi assumed the position of Minister of Interior.

· In 1969, Essebsi served as Minister of Defense.

· In 1970, Essebsi was appointed Tunisia's ambassador to France.

· From 1981 to 1986, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under the government of prime minister Mohamed Mzali.

· In 1987, he was appointed Tunisia's ambassador to West Germany.

· From 1990 to 1991, he served as president of the Chamber of Deputies.

· On February 27, 2011, following the resignation of prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, temporary president Fouad Mubazaa appointed Essebsi Tunisian prime minister. Mubazaa tasked Essebsi with forming an interim government that would serve until the Constituent Assembly elections were held.

Following in the footsteps of Bourguiba, Essebsi noted that he wanted to bring Tunisia into the 21st century, not leave it behind in the seventh century, taking into consideration that there is no incompatibility between Islam and democracy and acknowledging that the problem to be dealt with is political Islam.[18] Essebsi also authored a book on Bourguiba, Habib Bourguiba: Le bon grain et l'ivraie ("The Wheat and the Chaff"), a personal account of how the first Tunisian president shaped modern Tunisia.[19]

Essebsi's critics often point out that his advanced age is an obstacle in his ability to function as president.[20] In an interview, Essebsi answered this criticism as follows: "I cannot change [my] age, I have the age that I have. However, youth is not a civil status, but a state of mind. And I think that I have a young state of mind and that my state of mind is younger than that of those who criticize me."[21]

The New Tunisian Prime Minister

On January 5, 2015, Habib Essid was nominated prime minister by Nidaa Tounes and was asked to form a new government. Essid previously served in the government under ousted Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and following Ben Ali's ouster was appointed provisional interior minister in March 2011, serving in that capacity until December of that year.

Essid, 65, was previously a high-level civil servant dealing primarily with issues related to agriculture. Later on, he moved to the Interior Ministry, where he remained until 2001. Eventually, he went back to agricultural affairs, and in 2004 became executive director of the Madrid-based International Olive Council and serving in that capacity until 2010. He served also as interior minister in the government of Beji Caid Essebsi, when the latter was appointed prime minister in 2011. Thereafter, he was advisor for security affairs in the cabinet of prime minister Hamadi Jebali.

According to Tunisian journalist Marouen Achouri, the signals provided by the choice to appoint Essid are clear: "security and recovery of the prestige of the State."[22] However, Achouri mentions as well that Essid's appointment may raise "perplexities": "Nidaa Tounes has chosen a hard-working figure with a proven track record at the service of the State. [His] profile responds to the necessity to put the country back to work. On the other hand, Habib Essid's experience in security affairs meets a second need – the need to fight terrorism.

"However, choosing Habib Essid as head of government raises some perplexities. The first one is that he does not belong to Nidaa Tounes. An important sector of party supporters wanted the prime minister to be chosen from among the party leaders. They consider that [the choice] should derive from the electoral results and that if the majority of the people elected [Nidaa Tounes people], it was for them [i.e. Nidaa Tounes] to govern. Moreover, the party might have to pay the expenses of a policy to whose formulation it did not contribute. On the other hand, the choice of an independent figure contributes to calming [the political environment] and to building up a better consensus around the governmental team. Furthermore, Habib Essid has worked previously with Beji Caid Essebsi and with Hamadi Jebali, which means that he is well known by both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha, the two main political forces in the country. While awaiting the completion of the assembly of the government team, the figure of Habib Essid appears to be consensual.

"Another question mark raised by Habib Essid's appointment concerns his career record. In fact, he was minister of the Interior under Beji Caïd Essebsi and during this period some social protests were violently repressed. [Also] his record as advisor on security, under Hamadi Jebali, raises some questions since, during that period, the assassination of Chokri Belaid took place...

"As stated by Mohamed Ennaceur, interim president of Nidaa Tounes, Habib Essid was chosen for 'his independence and his experience particularly in the fields of security and economics and also in consideration of the positions he had held in the highest echelons of the State. Clearly, the security aspect played a favorable role in the nomination of Mr. Essid to helm the Tunisian government.

"According to the declarations of several politicians, Habib Essid's nomination to the premiership was favorably received. In fact, Zied Laadhari, Ennahdha's official spokesperson, said, 'We favorably accept Habib Essid's nomination and we are ready to work with him.' Mohsen Hassen, leader of the Free Patriotic Union party, welcomed the fact that his party had been consulted before the designation of Mr. Essid, and added that [Essid] is a consensual figure with a great experience in the fields of security and economics. The only negative point came from the Popular Front, which was not consulted for this designation and which underlined the fact that Habib Essid had belonged to the Ben Ali regime. Zouhair Maghzaoui observed that Habib Essid constitutes a meeting point between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes and added that the [final] judgment would be based on the governmental activities, not the people.

"The challenges to be confronted by the next government are huge, and the issues to be dealt with are many. The choice of a tough man expert in security affairs might reveal itself as wise for this period. However, this firmness may be a double-edged sword when he has to deal with trade unions or [to introduce] the painful economic reforms which are coming up. Habib Essid might well be the man for the job; however, for the moment, the questions that he raises are more numerous than the certitudes that he brings. At a turning-point in the country's history, the responsibilities that Habib Essid must carry upon his shoulders are immense."

PM Essid's New Government Excludes Ennahda

On January 23, 2015, the new prime minister, Habib Essid, announced the lineup of his cabinet. The proposed government team comprises 24 ministers. The new proposed government comprises national competencies that include political figures, civil society activists, and experts, with a substantial presence of women and youth. The two represented parties are Nidaa Tounes and the Free Patriotic Union. However, the government may not survive a no-confidence vote, as major parties were excluded in the government. No cabinet posts were given to members of the Islamist party Ennahda, which holds 69 seats in the assembly. In an official statement, Ennahda announced that it would not vote to grant confidence to the government.

Other parties have declared that they will not grant confidence to the new government. Among them are the leftist Popular Front party and the liberal party Afek Tounes, both excluded in the government.

Official Ennahda statement. Statement by Ennahda. Source:, January 25, 2015.


APPENDIX I: Beji Caid Essebsi: A Choice Of Stability And Wisdom – Mohamed Salah Kasmi, Kapitalis (Tunisia), December 22, 2014

"A Consolidation Of The Newborn Democracy In Tunisia"

"...After having won the second round of the presidential elections, Mr. Caid Essebsi, a comrade and former minister of Habib Bourguiba, confirmed that his star is rising in the Tunisian political arena.

"The duel that everybody was waiting for finally took place. The winner was not elected by a narrow margin but by a considerable majority, as anticipated by the exit poll... He obtained 55.50% of the votes. His opponent, Moncef Marzouki, suffered a stinging defeat, by getting 44.50% of the votes.

"In an article titled 'Beji Caid Essebsi on the royal road,' published by Kapitalis on November 24, 2014, I wrote: 'The election of the president of the Republic is directed by the results of the first round which allows to anticipate what is going to take place on the second round.' The election of Mr. Caid Essebsi on December 21, 2014 seems to confirm this analysis.

"Mr. Caid Essebsi's victory illustrates the astounding efficiency of Nidaa Tounes, the performance of its electoral apparatus, and the support of the progressive and democratic parties and associations for his election. It also exposes the weakening of the Islamist camp, led by Ennahda, which supported Mr. Marzouki, although unofficially. The latter [Marzouki] could also count on the support of the militants of the League for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), who were disbanded but who are still active, as well as of certain extremist elements of the Salafist nebula.

"This victory changes the political arena in the sense of a vital balancing and of a consolidation of the newborn democracy in Tunisia. The country voted against sectarianism, populism, division and mediocrity and in favor of stability, competence, wisdom and credibility.

"This victory is very valuable for democracy and it [represents] a new hope for a people, who love freedom and justice. It is also a sign of political maturity and of total engagement on the path of democratic transition, of stability and of national reconciliation.

"Right after his enthronement at Carthage palace, the new president of the republic will appoint a prime minister, whose task will be to form a new government within the delay of one month, [a delay] that can be renewed only once, according to Article 89 of the Constitution.

"Due to a very fragmented political landscape, it will be necessary to form a coalition government. [In fact] no party has the force to form a majority by itself. The parties of the progressive camp must agree on a common program about the reforms to be carried out. This is a tough test for the democratic transition and for the cohesion of the democratic camp."

Respect For The Motto Of The Republic: Freedom, Dignity, Justice And Order

"In order to have a successful change, long-awaited by the Tunisians, it is necessary to remain committed to the four virtues engraved on the emblem of the Republic: Freedom, Dignity, Justice and Order. [These are] four moral principles which describe by themselves a project for a society and for a common future. Each element balances the others. Freedom without dignity, without justice and without order means everyone for himself and the law of the strongest. Freedom remains a pillar for democracy. Freedom without order means anarchy. Freedom without justice means an inequitable society. Liberty without dignity is meaningless since there will be no collective mobilization in favor of the disadvantaged and of a shared sense of belonging. Dignity represents the force of social cohesion which we should preserve in this divided Tunisia. Everyone should express solidarity with the people who are experiencing difficulties, the unemployed, all the women whose rights are threatened, and all suffering children.

"The key to the success of our country resides in national cohesion, steadfastness in actions, the implementation of sustainable reforms, and the mobilization of all Tunisians for establishing the Rule of Law and ensuring security, justice, economic prosperity, social progress, and living well together."


*A. Mahjar-Barducci is Research Fellow for North African Studies at MEMRI.




[1], December 29, 2014.

[2] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1078, Pan-Arabist Ideology In The New Tunisian Constitution, March 26, 2014.

[3] The Assembly of the Representatives of the People replaced the Constituent Assembly.


[5] Kapitalis (Tunisia), December 23, 2014.

[6] Kapitalis (Tunisia), October 30, 2014.

[9], December 3, 2014.

[10], December 3, 2014.

[11] Kapitalis (Tunisia), November 9, 2014.

[12] Kapitalis (Tunisia), December 23, 2014.

[13] According to French political scientist Maurice Duverger, who invented the term "semi-presidential system," the system is: The president is directly elected by the people; said president possesses serious measures of authority and influence over the workings of the governmental system; and there are also a prime minister and government ministers who are tied to the parliament, and who possess executive authorities.


[15] Kapitalis (Tunisia), November 9, 2014.

[16] Business News (Tunisia), April 20, 2014.


[18], December 3, 2014.




[22] Business News (Tunisia), January 5, 2015.

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