Essebsi and Tunisia: The nostalgia for past glories

Essebsi and Tunisia: The nostalgia for past glories
4 min read
15 December, 2014
The remembered glories of the past combined with fear of what the future might bring are driving the rise of Nidaa Tounes.
Many Tunisians think Marzouki doesn't dress like a president [Amin al-Andalusi/Anadolu]

In the first part of this series, I described how and why the remnants of the nomenklatura of Ben Ali's regime were incorporated into the political machine of Nidaa Tounes. This machine helped Beji Caid Essebsi and his party shape political debate in Tunisia and focus it on the responsibility of Ennahdha and its allies for the rise of terrorism and the fall in the purchasing power of the average Tunisian.

The difficult economic situation is the main reason why today a large number of Tunisians feel their lives used to be better before the revolution. Their reason to vote for Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes, however, can best be summer up as nostalgia for the past.

Tunisians consider Essebsi to be the only one who can protect them from the Islamization of society.

To launch the presidential campaign of their candidate, Nidaa Tounes chose the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba. Beji Caid Essesbi is seen by many as the reincarnation of Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia and the "father of the Nation", and the best bet to save them from what is happening. Essebsi is not just using the same discourse as Bourguiba, he has also reintroduced concepts Bourguiba used to consolidate his rule when he was leader.

Bourguiba's civil state

The "civil state" that Bourguiba built is regarded as one of the most important pillars of Tunisian society. It was also seen as under threat when, after the revolution, the Islamist movement, which had been oppressed for decades, made a strong political comeback. The parallel rise of radical Islamism and terrorism was a real threat to the lifestyles of many Tunisians.

These take comfort in the Neo-Bourguibism of Essebsi. They consider him the only person who can protect them from the Islamization of society. Women, worried about the rise of Islamism that threatens their rights, are especially affected by this discourse.

Emphasising the Islamist/modernist contrast, Essebsi wields the expression "haybat ad-dawla" in almost all his speeches. The expression literally means the prestige of the state, though the word hayb can also mean fear or awe. It was used by Bourguiba and has been used by other politicians from many Arab countries.

Every action or discourse that can weakens the state is considered a threat to haybat ad-dawla: terrorist attacks, strikes, sit-ins, protests, criticism of security forces, etc. In this sense, the revolution is considered to a source of chaos. That is why, the argument current in some circles goes, the prerevolutionary order should be reestablished.

And to accomplish that, the state can legitimately use force. When he was Prime Minister in 2011, Essebsi used the excuse of protecting haybat ad-dawla to excuse his repression of the peaceful sit-in at Kasbah 3, who wanted to "save the revolution".

State prestige

Used to Presidents who value their own prestige, many Tunisians appear to link the prestige of the state with a dress code.

Used to presidents who value prestige, many Tunisians appear to link haybat ad-dawla with a certain dress code. Deputies from Ennahdha and the president himself have been criticised because of their lack of sartorial elegance. Caricatures have been transformed into myths about what is happening in Le Bardo Palace and the Carthage Palace. Tomorrow's run-off, may see people vote for Essebsi over Moncef Marzouki simply because they are convinced the incumbent does not reflect haybat ad-dawla.

During the transitional period, real wages decreased because of economic stagnation and high inflation. The situation was totally different before the revolution when the structure of Tunisian society was characterised by the importance of its middle class.

With austerity and ongoing neoliberal reforms, people's purchasing power is declining, however. The lack of governance experience of new parties and their complex relationship with the administration have also caused an economic impasse. People therefore miss the state they came to know after independence, but before the revolution.

Lured by the Bourguibist discourse that promises a return to the stability of the past, 39.46 percent of Tunisian voters backed Essebsi for president in the first round of voting. At least that many will support him in the second round.

A key question tomorrow will thus be how many voters are able to look beyond the Troika government's failure over the past few years and still believe a break from the past that does not involve embracing political Islam is possible - and necessary.

Read part 1 - Essebsi and Tunisian politics: The support of the nomenklatura - here.