The definitive results of the Tunisian election have yet to be announced, now three days after the polls closed. Until we have the final numbers I will refrain from engaging in commentary or analysis, except to say that I am favorably impressed by the way things look so far (as of midday Wednesday CEST), notably by the unexpectedly (for me) strong showing of the secular parties (secular being shorthand here for non-Islamist and non-conservative). Ennahda is the no. 1 party by far—hardly a surprise—but looks like it will fall well short of an absolute majority of seats, necessitating a coalition with non-Islamist formations.
Well, maybe. One of the surprises of Sunday’s vote is the exceptionally high score obtained by a party called Al-Aridha al-Chaabia lil-Adalaa wal-Hourria wal-Tanmia (Popular Petition for Justice, Freedom, and Development), which is holding third place with 25 seats (of 217), winning seats in 20 of the 27 constituencies (plus one for Tunisians abroad), and doing particularly well in Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid governorates. In some polling stations in Sidi Bouzid—where the revolution started—, Al-Aridha received 90% of the vote. This is all a surprise because the party was ignored during the campaign and with practically no non-Tunisians outside the country having ever even heard of it. It was completely off the radar screen, mentioned nowhere in the media and figuring in no public opinion poll. And it was not mentioned in the ICG’s most recent report on Tunisia. Al-Aridha is so obscure that there is no Wikipedia entry on it even in Arabic, let alone French or English. When I and others following the election first saw the party’s name and its high score, the reaction was WTF? who are they?? One Tunisian analyst wrote yesterday that “not even Nostradamus would have predicted such a success” for Al-Aridha. As Al-Aridha’s bloc of seats could hold the balance of power in the Constituent Assembly—allied with Ennahda, it would give the latter the majority without having to depend on the established secular parties—, the question is not impertinent.
This is particularly so as the first bits of information hinted that Al-Aridha could have an Islamist orientation. As one learns, the party is entirely the creation of an operator named Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, a ouled el bled from Sidi Bouzid who owns and runs the Al-Mustakilla satellite television station based in London, where he has lived since the ’90s. He was indeed an activist in the Islamist MTI—Ennahda’s predecessor—from the late ’70s to 1992, when he quit the movement. But he remained an Islamist of sorts in the ’90s, during which time he was apparently close to Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi. Like Turabi, Elhachmi Hamdi is an intellectual and with solid academic credentials, having defended a doctoral thesis in 1996 at the University of London on Ennahda and the politicization of Islam, and which was published by Westview Press in 2000. He was likewise a contributor to a forum on Islam and liberal democracy in the April 1996 issue of the Journal of Democracy (published by the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington), where he critiqued the contributions of Bernard Lewis and Robin Wright (see here and here). In his JOD piece Elhachmi Hamdi let it be known that he was the translator for Robin Wright in an interview she conducted with Rached Ghannouchi in Washington five years earlier.
But during the ’90s Elhachmi Hamdi had an in fact become a supporter of Ben Ali—which was one reason he quit Ennahda—and regularly defended the regime on Al-Jazeera at the time. Then, for obscure reasons, he broke with Ben Ali around 2001 and turned Al-Mustakilla into a leading platform for regime opponents. Secular opponents, such as Sihem Bensidrine, Taoufik Ben Brik, Mokhtar Trifi, Mohamed Charfi, Khemais Chemmari, and Mohamed Mouada, among others, whose interviews and declarations on the network drove the regime up the tree (Elhachmi Hamdi received numerous threats at the time). But in another 180° flip, Elhachmi Hamdi reconciled with Ben Ali in 2002 and once again sang his praises, as well as those of First Lady Leïla Trabelsi. In return, he was apparently granted certain facilities for pursuing business ventures, including launching a private TV station to be based in Hammamet (I have no information on what happened with that). A man of principle, that Elhachmi Hamdi…
His campaign for this election was waged entirely from London via Al-Mustakilla, with Elhachmi Hamdi—speaking in his accent du terroir—engaging in the most shameless populism, promising to turn Tunisia into an “Eldorado in 90 days,” with the creation of 500,000 jobs, universal health care, free public transportation, and other monts et merveilles. Immediately, as of November 1, 2011. All this would be financed via a surtax on air tickets and enlisting famous Tunisian football players to raise money through charities and organizing festivals, among other schemes. Dr. Elhachmi Hamdi sounds more like a cross between Herman Cain and Ross Perot than Rached Ghannouchi or Hassan al-Turabi. It obviously worked for his party and him personally, as he won a seat from Sidi Bouzid (for sources on all this, see here, here, here, here, and here).
The fact that Elhachmi Hamdi waged his campaign from abroad, via foreign-based media, and with sources of financing of uncertain origin may result in his entire list being invalidated for violations of the electoral code (see here, here, and here). I have learned since starting this post that the official announcement of the election results has been delayed to November 9th. The invalidation question is no doubt the main reason why. If Al-Aridha’s list is invalidated, it will considerably alter the distribution of seats in one direction or another. This is a big deal.
UPDATE: Today’s Le Figaro has an article on the subject. It mentions Elhachmi Hamdi’s wealth. As to how a ouled el bled from Sidi Bouzid gets rich like that…