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Former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s death on 19 September did not grip the majority of Tunisians as much as the presidential election earlier that week, which has left two populist outsiders competing to replace the late Béji Caïd Essebsi in a second round of voting, expected in October. Ben Ali seized power in November 1987 from president-for-life Habib Bourguiba, a genuine giant of post-colonial politics who had become incapable of ruling. His takeover was welcomed and Tunisia continued to woo investment and foreign finance until Ben Ali went into Saudi Arabian exile in February 2011 (AE 126/5), but momentum was lost as one of the continent’s most promising economies descended into autocracy and crony business practices (AE 202/24).

Abir Moussi, who appealed to those nostalgic for Ben Ali-era growth and stability, won only 4% of the vote, coming ninth of 26 candidates on 15 September. The Jasmine Revolution that swept away Ben Ali arguably bequeathed the only fully functioning democratic system to emerge from the Arab Spring, but it has failed to improve living standards. Two populist candidates will contest the second round – an austere Tunis University law professor who will garner Islamist support, Kaïs Saïed (who won 18.4% of the vote), and media magnate Nabil Karoui (who polled 15.6% on around 49% turnout). Karoui gained traction through his reality TV show; he remains in prison having been arrested (supporters say on Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s orders) on 23 August for alleged money laundering and tax evasion.

The Tunisian system has been evolving towards reduced presidential powers, while parliament is expected to play a greater role. Karoui’s party could do well in legislative elections on 6 October. The Islamist party Ennahda has placed more emphasis on the polls than the presidential election, in which its candidate Abdelfattah Mourou finished third. Ennahda’s historic leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, is number one on its Tunis list, standing for the first time in an election that could end with his appointment as parliamentary speaker.

The presidential election takes Tunisia further into the unknown, with the prospect of populist/Islamist alliances or other potentially volatile political relationships. Foreign support will continue, but uncertainties and drift are undermining Tunisia’s prospects (AE 388/20). Public enterprises continue to function, but their finances and performance have stagnated or dipped. In earlier years, IPPs were planned – as shown in African Energy’s first ever Update table (AE 9/7), which eventually evolved into African Energy Live Data – while Tunisia drew in IOCs and BG Group’s Miskar and Hasdrubal gas fields emerged as its largest industrial investment (AE 121/3, 117/12). There were even exciting plans for commercial power, oil and gas links with Libya (AE 7/2). However, the pace of developments slowed as governance and financial problems became more severe (AE 187/6).

Ben Ali’s legacy weighs heavy. By 2010, presidential family members were featuring in reports of private power and other projects (AE 189/9). Officials talked up efforts to develop gas reserves (AE 198/20) even as perennial resentments were welling up in mining capital Gafsa and hardscrabble towns like Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010 launched the Arab Spring.

Regional discrepancies of wealth and opportunity have plagued Tunisia since the Bourguiba era, when his rivals represented marginalised regions and groups – including social-religious conservatives – who lost out to the elite Tunis and coastal Sahel regions. Successive Ben Ali governments claimed to be tackling the same problems of marginalisation; so have governments since the Arab Spring. As Ben Ali could have told the new generation of populists, they will struggle to overcome Tunisia’s malaise.