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Middle East Amp North Africa
Octogenarian tipped to lead Tunisia
From the Financial Times of Wed, 19 Nov 2014 09:24:25 GMT
Former Tunisian prime minister Beji Caid el Sebsi delivers a speech outlining his credentials and announcing his candidature to run in the Tunisian presidential elections in the capital, Tunis, on September 12, 2014. The Tunisian presidential elections are to be held on November 23. AFP PHOTO / SALAH HABIBI (Photo credit should read SALAH HABIBI/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

It may seem unusual that an octogenarian politician who once said he would run for president only if he was “still alive” would be tipped to lead a country whose youthful uprising touched off the Arab Spring.

But Beji Caid Sebsi is now seen as the frontrunner in Tunisia’s presidential election on November 23 – just three days before his 88th birthday – after his Nida Tunis party won October’s parliamentary elections with 39 per cent of the seats making it the largest bloc in the assembly.

One of 25 candidates in the race, Mr Sebsi is for his supporters a credible secular face against the Islamists of Nahda, who emerged from decades of repression to capture a plurality of seats in the first election after the 2011 revolution and lead government for almost two years.

Also running is Moncef Marzouki, the interim president. A long-time opposition figure and veteran human rights activist, he may draw support from Islamists who see him as a bulwark against the return of the old regime.

Mr Sebsi’s party, a motley alliance of the old guard, liberals and trade unionists, was formed expressly to counter the Islamists, whom voters have punished for the country’s economic slowdown during the transition and for their perceived initial laxity towards violent religious extremists.

“Tunisia’s political experiment has brought ruin and terrorism,” said Lamiaa, a voter in a middle-class district of Tunis after casting her ballot for Mr Sebsi’s party in last month’s poll. “He has long years in government and experience. We want our country to succeed and not to have so many problems. I don’t want Nahda – Tunisia is a modern state.”

But Mr Sebsi’s detractors fear the long-serving politician – a pillar of the one-party state during a first career from 1963 to 1991, when he held key jobs such as interior minister – may embody the return of an authoritarian, repressive past and threaten the country’s fledgling democracy.

“In my personal opinion, Nida Tunis control of both parliament and the presidency would be extremely worrying because it is the old regime with a new face,” said Sayed Ferjani, a Nahda official. “This would be the monopolisation of power altogether. I don’t think there is a worse scenario than this.”

Monica Marks, a Tunis-based political analyst, described Nida Tunis as “visibly authoritarian on the inside, and held together only by opposition to Nahda”.

Nahda, though still a significant force with only 16 seats fewer than NIDA’s 85, has not fielded a candidate nor is it backing any of the contenders, so as not to “fuel the polarisation in the country”, according to Mr Ferjani.

Mr Sebsi has sought to reassure voters that if he wins, it will not mean a return to single-party rule. “We will not exclude any party. Just as we reject violence, we are against exclusion,” he said at a rally on Saturday.

But Mr Sebsi’s appeal goes beyond his opposition to Islamists, say observers. A French-trained lawyer from a patrician family, he evokes a golden age under the country’s first-post independence president, Habib Bourguiba – a man venerated as a father of the nation whose support for education and the liberation of women made Tunisia one of the most modern and secular states in the region – albeit one in which dissent was not tolerated.

“Sebsi is charismatic and to many Tunisians, he reminds them of a previous era,” said Omeyya Seddik, a researcher with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an international conflict resolution charity. “Tunisians have a nostalgia for the era of Bourguiba, even those who did not experience it. It is seen as a golden era, and Sebsi is viewed as a comforting kind of father or grandfather.”

The candidate has been keen to cast himself as an heir to the legacy of Bourguiba, emphasising his commitment to women’s rights, birth control and “building a state for the 21st century” – a jibe at the Islamists, who are often accused of being backward.

Mr Seddik argued that fears a Sebsi victory may severely test Tunisia’s democracy are overblown, saying that the political context after the revolution will make it difficult to restore the authoritarianism of the past.

“Mr Sebsi may not be a democrat but the new Tunisian constitution, and the ability of civil society to mobilise, makes it hard to overthrow democracy, at least in the short term,” he said.

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