With the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi on 25 July, Tunisia’s presidential elections were moved up and will be held on 15 September 2019. By the end of the eight-day process of accepting nominations – from 2 to 9 August – the Independent High Authority for Elections (IHAE) had received 97 requests for nomination which include 75 independents and 11 female candidates. On 31 August, the IHAE released the final list of candidates for the presidential race, accepting 26 nominees, including two women, and rejecting 71 applications for failing to meet candidacy requirements.
The IHAE is considered one of the achievements of the 2011 Revolution. It is a nine-member permanent body based in Tunis which enjoys administrative and financial independence. Its mission is to “ensure democratic, pluralistic, fair and transparent elections and referendums” and supervise and oversee all related processes.
The election campaigns started on 2 September and will continue until 13 September, with 17 September as the deadline for the announcement of the preliminary election results and 21 October for the announcement of the final results. In case of no absolute majority vote, a second round will be held after two weeks.
What is at stake in these elections?
Presidential elections are vital to the democracy-building process that began with the fall of the Ben Ali regime, not only because they are a cumulative step towards greater consolidation of democracy in Tunisia, but also as a significant test of the quality of Tunisian democracy itself. The founding phase of Tunisia’s fledgeling democracy began with the holding of the 2011 election of the Constituent Assembly, which later drafted the Constitution, and the election of a president by parliamentary majority. The 2014 legislative and presidential elections were thought to usher in the consolidation of democracy in Tunisia after years of democratic transition. The last five years have been marked by a politics of consensus between the secular party Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist/religious Ennahdha Movement. This period saw developments ranging from multiple political crises to the failure to realize the Revolution’s demands for employment, social justice, and the elimination of corruption. Therefore, the upcoming elections represent a test of popular satisfaction with the post-2011 political establishment entrusted with realizing the principles of democratic governance such the rule of law, the values of citizenship and a civil state, the separation of powers and checks and balances in government.
Today, the electoral landscape is crowded with independent and partisan political figures jockeying for the Presidency of the country. According to the 2014 Constitution, the President of the Republic is the symbol of state sovereignty and the guarantor of stability and respect for the Constitution, and enjoys “unilateral” powers and others “shared” with the Head of Government or the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (parliament). The preamble of the 2014 Constitution and its various chapters enshrine political consensus between the ruling elites and create overlapping powers in order to prevent the rise of new forms of despotism. This was evidenced by the reduction of presidential prerogatives to a range of limited powers compared to the Head of Government: representation of the state, presidency of the National Security Council, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, ratification of state treaties, appointment of the Mufti of the Republic and the higher positions of the presidency, as well as the right to propose amendments to the Constitution and pass legislative initiatives.
However, nearly five years after the inauguration of the first president directly elected by the people in a free and fair election in the political history of the Tunisian state, it has become increasingly prevalent how difficult it is to achieve and sustain such a “hybrid” political system, as described by the late President Essebsi himself in a press interview in 2017: “The political system emanating from the current constitution suffers from several weaknesses, and is a system that has, almost nearly, paralyzed government work. Its hybrid nature does not help the government, any government, or the executive authority in general, to carry out its duties in managing the state and achieving development goals within a democratic society in which the values of freedom and dignity are realized. The Constitution put in place a system in which powers overlap, not only between constitutional institutions, and this has in itself become a factor that hinders the work of these institutions.”
This paper profiles the political backgrounds of the most prominent candidates in the Tunisian presidential race based on their ranking by the national press and observers of Tunisian affairs as candidates of well-known political or public status that would add value to the presidency. It relies on their stated preliminary electoral programmes and their past statements. Their candidacy also filled the qualification requirements set by the IHAE, including receipt of full endorsements, financial guarantees and required documents, as well as the absence of final court rulings against the candidate in Tunisian courts. . The Arab Reform Initiative does not endorse or support any candidate. The profiles presented below are in the order they appear on the final candidates' list published by the IHAE on 31 August.
Profiles of the Candidates
(born 10 May 10, 1966in Tunis) - He is running for President on behalf of the social democratic party, the Democratic Current party. He was formerly a leader of the opposition party, Congress for the Republic under Ben Ali’s rule. He served as Minister of Administrative Reform after the 2011 elections and resigned months later, accusing the ruling parties at the time of not incorporating his reform plan and systematic call to fill Tunisian institutions with supporters of administrative reform. Abbou is known for his anti-corruption positions and his criticisms of the complacency of the post-revolution governments in pushing for administrative reform, establishing constitutional institutions or formulating clear strategies or policies to reduce poverty and unemployment. He considers that, “the state is obliged to lift citizens out of poverty, and push for the formulation of projects, not policies of assistance and charity.” He strongly criticized the policies of indebtftness and borrowing from international financial institutions which were pursued by successive governments. He also deplores the selectivity and compromise he sees as having marred Youssef Chahed’s campaign against corruption. He considers that the President of the Republic is the “faithful guardian” with great powers to push the Head of Government and the parliament towards real and fundamental reforms.
(born 15 March 1975 in Monastir) - She is a candidate for the Free Destourian Party, which she presides, as an extension of the history of Bourguiba and the achievements of the Ben Ali era. An active member of Ben Ali’s ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally, she continues to defend the former regime and is known for her denial of the success of the 2011 Revolution, and her dissatisfaction with the semi-parliamentary system. She explicitly pledges that if she wins the presidency, she will change the “Constitution and the political system.” A number of observers consider her a populist phenomenon that reflects nostalgia for Ben Ali’s regime because of the lack of confidence in the new political elite. She is also known for causing stirs in the political and media circles with her anti-Islamist statements and for occupying top positions in opinion polls for several months. In most of her statements and rallies, Moussi considers that her top priority is to send Ennahdha figures back to prison, saying, “Tunisia is a civil state, and the Ennahdha Shura Council is a shame on all of us because it is linked to the caliphate and to suspicious organizations, and a consolidation of Islamic allegiance (bay’aa).” She accuses the ruling elite of attempting to exclude her from the presidential race by passing amendments to the electoral law. She recently stated that she was the “rampart” against the deceptive 14 January (post-Revolution) regime, and represents the national structure (post-independence to the Ben Ali era), saying, “history is recording the tremendous efforts of Destourians (followers of the Free Destourian Party) to enact radical change.” Her critics – among Islamists and the Tunisian left – consider her an extension of the old exclusionary regime, spreading hate speech and provoking people with anti-democratic sentiments and opposition to the gains of the Revolutionary. In her electoral programme, Moussi focuses on security, and says that she will promote Tunisia as a stabilizing factor in the fight against terrorism in the region and internationally. She also emphasizes the need to review the debt policy and national security issues, while ensuring the continuation of Bourguiba’s diplomatic approach.
(born 1 August 1963 in Bizerte) - He is known as the owner of Nessma TV, one of the most prominent businessmen in Tunisia, and the most influential supporter of President Essebsi’s campaign for presidency and of Nidaa Tounes in the 2014 elections. In June 2019, and in reaction to the “amendment of the electoral law”, Karoui founded the party “9alb Tounes” (Heart of Tunisia). By founding the party, Karoui sought to meet the legal requirements to run for the presidency on the one hand and emerge as a politician with the support of a political party in order to abate the criticism of his use of charity and media for political purposes, on the other. Nabil Karoui promotes his image as a “candidate for the poor.” His involvement in institutional charity work, through his association, Khalil Tounes, (directly sponsored by Nessma TV, which also covers its activities daily, in a programme presented by Karoui himself) has enabled him to reach some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in Tunisian regions, especially since he personally attended a number of activities by the association. In recent months, Karoui’s popularity has surged, not only because he ranked near the top in opinion polls on Tunisia’s future president , but also due to his ability to lament legislative constraints against his charitable and media activity, which attracts large groups of Tunisians, “the forgotten Tunisia” as he put it. Karoui presents himself as an alternative to the current ruling elite that exploits state institutions for its own narrow interests and is complacent in its failure to help the people. In a televised interview, he stated that, “state administrators have been distracted by electoral contests and left people to suffer... It is also necessary to assist the poor and return what belongs to the people.” On 23 August, Nabil Karoui was arrested on suspicion of fiscal fraud and money laundering. At the time of writing, he remains in prison but continues his presidential campaign.
(born 16 November 1959 in Kasserine) - He is running for the presidency as a candidate for the Union Populaire Républicaine party (UPR), a party which presents itself as social nationalist party. Most of his positions centre around opposition to the ruling establishment, which he accuses of corruption and the use of political money and the media to serve narrow interests. Lotfi M’Raihi’s often promotes direct democracy through encouraging citizens’ participation . Such position is echoed in statements such as “the citizen chooses and initiates,” and “power lies in the hands of the people.” In the same context, M’Raihi views the role of the President of Tunisia as one with the power to change, and a figure close to the pulse of the street. Most of his press statements and positions focus on criticizing what he considers “political immorality” and lack of confidence in the political class, which he interprets as the result of the absence of checks and laws. He strongly criticizes the patriarchal and despotic mentality of the Tunisian political elite as they prejudge the inability of the Tunisian people to choose “those who manage their differences based on the Constitution.” Therefore, he considered the political establishment rallying around the personality of Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi and their call on him to run for presidency as proof that “the old establishment is strong... and propaganda for the old establishment remains active.” In short, his electoral platform is to use the president’s right to initiate legislation to bring about economic and social changes .
(born 21 April 1962 in Mahdia) - He assumed the post of Head of Government in the technocratic government from January 2014 to February 2015, which came as an alternative to the troika government led by Ennahdha after the political crisis in the 2013 summer following assassinations and terror attacks and the suspension of the work of the Constituent Assembly during the preparation for the 2014 elections. Jomaa had previously served as the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Energy during the troika period (2011-2013). He announced his candidacy for Al Badil Ettounsi party, which is considered by some analysts, especially in the early days of its founding, as an elitist party that is positioned within the republican moderate family. Jomaa presents himself as a candidate with the expertise to win the forthcoming presidential race thanks to his international experience. He stated in a televised interview that, “the best period in Tunisian diplomacy post-2011 was under my administration.” In his campaign platform, Jomaa pledges to continue working through the Bourguiba diplomatic approach while ensuring its implementation. He presents himself as able to promote Tunisia as a foreign investment destination .
(born 8 January 1952 in Siliana) - He announced his second run for the presidential race. He leads the Popular Front (a coalition of Tunisian leftist parties).He has a long political career which included opposition to the former authoritarian regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali and which led to multiple arrests. He considers that his candidacy for the presidency, in spite of divisions within the Popular Front, is in line with the desire of a number of citizens who would like him to assume responsibility for the leadership of the country due to his role in confronting dictatorship in its various manifestations before and after the 2011 Revolution. He refused to participate in the National Unity Government and opposed the policies of consensus between Islamists and secularists after 2014, accusing them of complacency in state institutions and of causing economic decline and social tensions. He also believes that the Unity Government is behind the delays in investigating political assassinations (of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi) and the presence of a secret apparatus run by Ennahdha. Hammami considers that the various governments and political elites that contributed to the founding of the Second Republic have failed to effectively realize political freedoms or transform the general contexts of freedom and democracy into a concrete project. He summed up his electoral programme in three points: 1) preserving the Constitution and the realization of national sovereignty through a review of international agreements that he deems reflect the interest of colonial powers and the continuity of activity of current rulers as foreign agents; 2) achieving national cohesion and guaranteeing the rights and dignity of Tunisian citizens; and 3) focusing on themes such as food, environment, water, financial and energy security and overcoming government failures to deal with violence, pollution, water shortages and desertification.
Mohamed Moncef Marzouki
(born 7 July 1945 in Nabeul) - He served as Tunisia’s President through the endorsement of members of the Constituent Assembly (2011-2014). He was also a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections against the late President Essebsi under the slogan “victory or victory”, receiving 44.3% of the total votes cast. He is known for his long political struggle against the authoritarian regimes in the eras of Bourguiba and Ben Ali and his human rights activism. He was the most prominent leader of the Congress for the Republic Party (CRP) and then Al-Irada Party and stands for the current presidential elections for the coalition Another Tunisia Alliance. During his time as president, and post-2014, his critics have considered his political stances and statements to be provocative and controversial, and accused him of insulting the Tunisian people and following an axes policy (in line with the regional rivalry between Qatar and Turkey, on the one hand, and KSA, UAE and Egypt, on the other). In this context, he was criticized for severing relations with Syria, his constant criticism of the Egyptian regime and other political positions channelled through his human rights background. Marzouki was one of the most prominent opponents of Essebsi government, and has repeatedly stated that, “we are prepared for a confrontation against corrupt money machines and the shameful media,” and that, “corrupt money is the primary obstruction of elections and the democratic process.” Marzouki announced that his (presidential and legislative) electoral programme seeks to dismantle the structure of corruption and uphold the value systems in society and the state, and then impose transparency in agreements with foreign companies on the exploitation of resources and ensure the independence of national decision-making.
(born 25 June 1950 in Rejiche) - He served as Minister of Defence, later resigning in order to enter the presidential race following appeals and pressure from some political parties (Afek Tounes and Nidaa Tounes). His supporters see in him a statesman capable of preserving the legacy of the late President Essebsi due to his personal loyalty him and his attitudes during his rule and following his death. He announced his candidacy as an independent, and his supporters promote his image as a “long-awaited saviour” and an “exemplary non-partisan.” His critics, however, regard his “nomination as a deliberate effort by lobbies.” For decades, Zbidi had held a number of academic research positions – in the medical field – before his appointment as Minister of National Defence in the National Unity Government in 2011-2013, and then in 2016-2019. Zbidi has defined himself by his divergence from Ennahdha, when he said, “There is nothing that associates me with Ennahdha. I am a lion of the national army and I will not be a bird of this group,” and by condemning the campaigns against by competitors, accusing him of misusing state resources.
(born 1 June 1948 in Tunis) - He is currently the interim speaker of parliament, and the deputy leader of Ennahdha Movement. Mourou has long been considered by many Tunisians as a moderate and a representative of what they describe as “Tunisian authenticity,” which is manifest in his keenness for wearing traditional clothes and his manner of speech that exudes baladi spirit (of the original urban dwellers of the capital). He was unanimously nominated for the presidential election by Ennahda’s Executive Bureau, after days of deliberation on potential support for a candidate from outside the Movement. He would be the first member of Ennahdha to run for the presidency. Mourou is considered one of the most prominent historical leaders of the Islamist current in Tunisia and was known for his daawa (religious advocacy) activities, and his repeated criticism of the orientations of Ennahdha both before and after 2011. He is also known for his constant advocacy for a moderate and democratic Islam, his ability to communicate with various political parties and to manage crises and disputes, and his credibility within the political class and the public at large. These factors have won him great popularity among various groups, and acceptability to international and regional powers. He represents a divergence from typical Islamist leaderships, as he maintains that, “I still hang a photo of President Habib Bourguiba in my house.” Mourou’s candidacy continues to raise questions about the political tactics of Ennahdha leaders, and his commitment to the Movement’s agenda after repeated (post-2011) critical statements, in which he declared, “Islamists have made a mistake when they thought they are the alternative, and worked to make revolutionary action a substitute for dictatorship.” Currently, Mourou is betting on his popularity and his public image to break the isolation of Ennahdha and revitalize its popular support given his well-known positions against political isolation and exclusion.
(born 18 September 1975 in Tunis) - He has held the position of Head of Government in the National Unity Government since 27 August 2016 and served as the Minister of Local Development in the government of Habib Essid (2016). Previously, he was a member of the Republican Party, then the Nidaa Tounes party and is currently the Honorary President of the political party, Tahya Tounes (Long Live Tunisia). His tenure as Head of Government was marked by the proclamation of slogans on combating corruption, as he stated before the parliament, “I chose the state, I chose Tunisia, and therefore I chose the war on corruption.” In his first months in government, Chahed ranked very highly in opinion polls. His relationship with the late president and a number of Nidaa Tounes leaders was marked by tension and deep division. Critics accused him of exploiting public facilities and state resources “in favour of his election campaign, and politically eliminating his opponents” when he introduced a legislative initiative to amend the electoral law (the so-called “exclusion law”) that would have excluded some of the other candidates. Conversely, Chahed’s supporters attribute campaigns against him to his war on corruption, as one supportive parliamentarian stated that, “Chahed is paying the price for standing by the state against the corrupt, terrorists and saboteurs.” To national and international public opinion, Chahed promotes his image as a young leader capable of fighting corruption and preserving national sovereignty.
(born 22 February 1958 in Tunis) - A professor of constitutional law, runs as an independent, after having scored well in opinion polls in Tunisia for many months. His explanatory notes on a number of legal and constitutional texts are generally conservative and often clash with the progressive modernist trend. He enjoys broad popularity with a wide range of Tunisians due to their confidence in the credibility of his positions, not being tarnished by dirty political money, and his ability to express the social mindset and religious beliefs clearly. He is critical of the conflict between the institution of the Presidency (the late President) and the Head of Government, which, in his opinion, caused an imbalance within the executive branch and exposed it to a severe political crisis that is being fought in the media and behind the scenes. He considers that the package of social and economic reforms in recent years has been subject to the recommendations of regional and international powers, and agendas imposed by the European Union and international organizations, saying, “today, we are living in a kind of internal and external slavery.”[26
Selma Elloumi Rekik
(born 6 June 1956 in Tunis) - She is running for the Amal Tounes party after her final separation from Nidaa Tounes and her resignation as Director of the Presidential Office. She previously held the position of Minister of Tourism and Handicrafts in the government of Habib Essid (2015-2016). Over the course of several political crises within Nidaa Tounes, Elloumi emerged as a political figure keen to conciliate various components through initiatives targeting the moderate family in order to avert conflicts over the leadership. In her press statements, she considered the President as a figure close to all strata of Tunisian society, stressing that, “the President should not involve us in internal conflicts, and should steer clear from populism.” She emphasizes her commitment to continuing the path of the late President Essebsi, affirming her diligence to represent all social groups and defend women’s rights. Selma Elloumi has also stressed national security as one of the most important priorities of her electoral programme. According to her critics, Selma Elloumi is characterized by her descent from the aristocratic circles that are antithetical to the reality of the Tunisian people. Many attribute her permanent presence in the post-2014 ruling political class to kinship and affinity to networks and support from the financial industry and influential lobbies.
Ahmed Safi Saïd
(born 22 September 1953 in Gafsa) - He is running in the presidential race for the second time as an independent. In his current bid, Saïd enjoys the endorsement and support of the People's Movement, which has an Arab nationalist ideology. He is a prominent intellectual and public figure known for his analysis of political issues and public affairs management. Safi Saïd is betting on the youth voters’ base which greatly supported him in the 2014 elections and sees the need to change Tunisia’s passive diplomacy by strengthening its military capabilities, shifting traditional alliances, and empowering the intelligence services. He also criticizes the parallel relationship between corrupt money and neo-liberal regimes and argues that revolutions are only protected from lobbies and hidden forces by the youths, a powerful military, and a president with a political and intellectual project. In press statements, Safi Saïd declared that state policies should be based on a comprehensive and bold vision to deal with the various challenges that hinder the revolutionary process. For example, he said, “terrorism is fought with good education and good families… that is by building a society based on combating exclusion, poverty and marginalization... Tunisia also lacks a strong military and security and the military resources to counter this phenomenon.”
(born 20 July 1957 in Medenine) - He runs as the candidate of the Social Democratic Union, and is currently the Secretary-General of the Mouvement Tunisie En Avant (Tunisia Forward) party. For decades, Briki was active as a trade unionist and a leader of the Tunisian General Labour Union (including as Assistant Secretary-General and Spokesperson), and held several of positions in international trade union organizations prior to his appointment as Minister of Public Service and Governance in the National Unity Government (August 2016 to February 2017). In his press statements, Briki criticizes the government’s failure to combat corruption or establish good governance strategies, saying that, “the situation in Tunisia has gone from bad to worse with Chahed’s government.” He believes that, if he wins the presidential election, his priorities are to resolve the “dilemmas” that continue to hamper Tunisia’s democratic process, including what he describes as the secret apparatus of Ennahdha, the 9 April attacks on the General Labour Union, and Tunisia’s position towards the Syria conflict. He also criticizes the state of rupture and divergence between the political elite and the reality of Tunisian citizens. In his view, a capable statesman should understand the reality of tribal and regional affiliations, and other components of the Tunisian social fabric. He also considers it important to review the current political system, and to seriously endeavour to resolve the Libyan crisis, saying, “if the issue of Libya is resolved at the initiative of Tunisia, a third of the problems of our country will be resolved.”
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.