Are Tunisians and Lebanese really related

Related, hated, related by marriage

In the Tunisian presidential election campaign, the candidates argue less about issues than about who can activate the largest network. Because Tunisia's political landscape largely depends on who knows whom.

A former MP who was elected to the Constitutional Assembly in the first free elections in 2011 says that he started to write a constitution, not to play. "In other countries there are political currents, in Tunisia only clans." After three often frustrating years and detours to various factions, he vowed never to run again.

His statement may be exaggerated, but it makes it clear why so much is being talked about people and so little about topics, concepts and ideologies in the current election campaign. Why are most parties campaigning with very similar promises to develop in all parts of the country, the so-called regions, and to reduce unemployment, and yet there are worlds between them. And why unexpected alliances sometimes arise. Because the power networks of Tunisian politics have to do not only with political affinities, but also with local, social and economic ties. Those who have something to say in Tunisian politics today are often related, related by marriage, and a love-hate relationship. They shared the school desk or prison cell together, went on hunger strike together or supported the same football club. Most of the links go back at least to the Ben Ali era, but some to before independence in 1956.

These networks are not hermetically sealed, they often overlap and almost always cross party lines. And sometimes the old regime is still present, especially when it comes to the economy.

A spider web across party lines

Since independence, the regional focus has been on the Sahel region, the rich coastal strip that extends from Hammamet in the north to south of Mahdia. Not only Habib Bourguiba, the first president of independence, was born there, in Monastir, but also his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, comes from the region, as do dozens of ministers and other politicians. The Sahel is often equated with belonging to the ruling class, but not necessarily with the urban upper class of the capital. Because the big families, the so-called Bèldiya, come from Tunis. The aristocratic structures still play a major role today, marriages are often within one's own class, and it is difficult for those who come from outside. Many politicians of the opposition parties at the time of the dictatorship come from this upper class in Tunis.

In addition, other networks have emerged. Many of the politicians who are active today come from the former - legal or illegal - opposition, were active under Bourguiba in the environment of the Tunisian student movement around the group of the extreme left "Perspectives" and under Ben Ali in the few tolerated human rights organizations such as the Take Ahmed Nejib Chebbi (Al Joumhouri Party) or Hamma Hamami (Popular Front), for example, but today they represent very different parties and often argue bitterly in public.

Anyone who has been to College Sadiki, the first French-speaking secondary school in Tunisia, or the National School of Administration (ENA) has an almost inexhaustible pool of contacts for life. Those who wanted to be economically successful had to make up for better or worse with the family clan of the former ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi.

Unifying element: the common enemy

One of the networks that has endured far beyond its historical significance to this day is the so-called Collective of October 18th. In November 2005 the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in Tunisia. The fact that the UN had chosen Tunisia of all places, a country in which the Internet and the press were subject to strict censorship and journalists and activists were bullied and persecuted, caused great anger among many. The opposition wanted to use the occasion to draw attention to the ongoing human rights violations. In addition to a joint declaration signed by figures from both the left and the Islamists, eight members of the collective are going on a hunger strike - almost all of them can still be found in Tunisia's political public sphere today. Among them are Nejib Chebbi, current leader of the Al-Joumhouri party and presidential candidate, Samir Dilou, under the Ennahdha government Minister for Human Rights, Hamma Hammami, chairman of the left-communist party alliance Popular Front and also presidential candidate, and two with Abderraouf Ayadi and Mohamed Abbou Member of the Constitutional Assembly. Judge Mokhtar Yahyoui, who was banned from the profession at the time, is now director of the data protection authority, while journalist Lotfi Hajji, member of the Islamist left, Tunisia correspondent for Al Jazeera.

Activities were coordinated by the PDP (Parti Democrate Progressiste "one of the predecessor parties of today's Al Joumhouri), one of the few legal opposition parties under Ben Ali. The hunger strikers gathered in the office of the party's newspaper Al Mawqif (Der Standpunkt), while the PDP took care of the press work and medical care. In the 2000s, the party became a reservoir for opposition figures who could not find a place elsewhere. Since she campaigned aggressively for the liberation of political prisoners, there were also many Islamists among them, who enjoyed slightly more room for maneuver in the 2000s than before. Many who had served their prison sentences found a place for discussion and participation in political and social life with the PDP and wrote in the weekly Al Mawqif.

Even if these alliances were quickly covered up by political disputes on January 14, 2011 and the disappearance of the common enemy, the events of that time still have an effect today. When Ali Larayedh put together his new cabinet in February 2013 (after the resignation of the then Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali as a result of the murder of the oppositionist Chokri Belaid), he found himself there again as State Secretary Fethi Touzri - medical doctor, member of the PDP in 2005 and responsible for the Responsible for hunger strikers - much to the annoyance of his then Al Joumhouri party (an alliance of parties around the PDP, founded in 2012), which had officially ruled out any participation in Ali Larayedh's government at the time.

From university to government

It was the common educational and professional path that played an important role in the case of Mehdi Jomaa's nomination, first as industrial and then in 2014, after the resignation of the Ennahda-led government, as prime minister. Born in 1962, he studies engineering in Tunis, just like his peer Ridha Saidi, with whom he has been on friendly terms ever since. Saidi co-founded the Islamist student movement UGTE and joined Ennahdha, was arrested and sentenced in 1991. In 2007 he was released from prison. Mehdi Jomaa is now making a career in France with Hutchinson, a sub-group of the French Total group. Also employed at Total was Elyes Fakhfakh, ten years younger than Jomaa and Saidi and also a graduate of the National College of Engineering.

Fakhafakh, a member of the Ettakatol party, one of the three coalition partners of the transitional government, is first tourism minister then finance minister in the Jebali government. Meanwhile, Ridha Saidi is Minister of State for Economic Affairs in the so-called Troika government of Hamadi Jebali (Ennahda). When he wanted to reshape the cabinet, the name Mehdi Jomaa, suggested by his former colleagues, was mentioned for the first time. When Jebali resigns and the former interior minister and Ennahda activist Ali Larayedh takes over the office, he appoints the non-party Jomaa as industry minister, later he becomes prime minister. Ennahdha had clearly found it difficult to surrender power after the political crisis in 2013 and to accept the technocratic government under Jomaa - also for fear of possible reprisals. The example of Egypt also frightened the Tunisian Islamists. But Ridha Saidi, as guarantor of the integrity of Jomaa, ultimately played a major role in the decision, and the Troika government around Ennahdha resigns.

After Ennahda returned to public life in 2011 from exile and prisons, the movement lacked skills and connections to business - an area that is still firmly in the hands of the old regime to this day. In Tunisia, however, hardly anyone wants to talk about it openly, and entrepreneurs reacted angrily to the reports of the World Bank; after all, these entrenched structures and privileges of many long-established entrepreneurs are called into question.

Big bussines

Even when Ennahdha wins the elections in October 2011 and Hamadi Jebali takes over the affairs of state, he does not ignore the old guard either. Nobody wants to take on official posts for fear of being brought into close contact with the Islamists. But Maher Kallel, for example, was a constant guest at Jebali in the corridors of the government palace in the Kasbah of Tunis, according to observers. The graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked for 15 years as a consultant at Poulina Holding, the largest Tunisian private corporation with an annual turnover (2013) of almost 1.5 billion dinars (around 650 million euros), which is operated via its poultry chain Mazraa im throughout the country and on the stock exchange. Until 2011, Poulina founder Abdelwaheb Ben Ayed was a member of the Central Committee of the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique), the party of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In September 2012 he was appointed to the supervisory board of the Tunisian central bank by the new central bank governor Chedly Ayari. Ayari, minister in the Bourguiba government, was only appointed in July 2012 - under severe criticism from the opposition, who accused the former minister under Habib Bourguiba of being too close to Ben Ali's old guard.

The proximity between business and politics was initially a taboo topic in Tunisia after the revolution; the memory of the entanglement of the Ben Ali system with the country's economic giants was too fresh. But in the 2013 election campaign, many candidates from business are suddenly running, be it on the lists of the parties for the parliamentary elections or as presidential candidates. The most prominent example: Mohamed Frikha, founder of Syphax Airlines. In Sfax, his hometown and next to Tunis the most important economic center of the country, he is running for the parliamentary elections for Ennahdha, and at the same time as an independent candidate for the presidential elections.

The business association UTICA had officially declared that it did not want to influence politics. In a television interview at the end of September, however, Frikha stated that the association had specifically asked the business liberal parties such as Ennahdha, Nidaa Tounes and Afek Tounes to put business people on their lists. For example, Salma Elloumi Rekik is the director of a large food company at Nidaa Tounes. The connections to international organizations are not always without aftertaste. For example, Ahlem Hachicha Chaker, sister-in-law of Slim Chaker, who is responsible for economic strategy at Nidaa Tounes, accompanied a delegation from the International Monetary Fund on a multi-week mission in the Maghreb as a translator in March 2013.

The return of the old guard

While parts of the Tunisian population fear an Islamization of society through Ennahdha, anger crystallizes in Nidaa Tounes over the return of the forces of the old system. The party is not the only one that has members of the RCD (in its ranks, but it is the one with the greatest broad impact. The lack of substantive orientation is also criticized. In contrast to Ennahdha, ideological issues hardly play a role in Nidaa Tounes, Its membership is far too diverse: the RCD had already lost its ideological significance under Ben Ali and was primarily concerned with securing its own position of power.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old founder of Nidaa Tounes and former minister under Bourguiba, was head of government for a few months in 2011. His predecessor, Mohamed Ghannouchi, had resigned after he was accused of keeping too many old guard ministers in the transitional government. Essebsi banished the old guard to the second row. Mohamed Nouri Jouini, former advisor to the overthrown ruler Ben Ali and most recently Minister for Development and International Affairs until the end of February 2011, is losing his ministerial post, but continues to work closely with Essebsi in the Prime Ministry and accompanies him on a state visit to the USA in October 2011. Essebsi recruited his press chief from the former agency for foreign communications (ATCE) created by Ben Ali, a mixture of press secret service and propaganda machine, first for the prime ministry, then for his press office at Nidaa Tounes.

The sticking point for many Nidaa supporters and members to turn away from the party was Mohamed Ghariani's entry into the party. The former general secretary of the RCD and close confidante of Ben Ali's son-in-law Sakhr el Materi was released from prison in July 2013, where he was incarcerated on various ongoing corruption proceedings. In August he joins Nidaa Tounes and becomes Essebsi's personal advisor. While Essebsi is building up his son Hafedh in public, Ghariani is pulling the strings in the background, party sources say behind closed doors. The former general secretary is well connected and can move mountains with a phone call. When he joined the party, more and more former members of the RCD reappeared.

The office for the French-North constituency abroad then had violent arguments between its members when two faces of the old regime, Raouf Khammasi, a German-Tunisian businessman, and Adel Jerboui became active. Jerboui was appointed Deputy Secretary General for Youth and Sport by Ben Ali in 2009, and he also sat as a member of parliament - next to Sakhr el Materi, although the people's representatives actually sat in alphabetical order. An indication of Jerboui's close ties to El Materi, who fled abroad after the revolution and is still wanted today in connection with various economic crimes.

In addition to Nidaa Tounes, the old guard is also represented in other parties or with independent candidates in the election campaign. Among the presidential candidates alone, Mondher Znaidi (independent), Abderrahim Zouari (Destourian Movement), Kamel Morjane (Al Moubadara) and Mustapha Kamel Nabli (independent), four former ministers of Ben Alis are represented. With the exception of the former governor of the Tunisian central bank (2011-2012) Nabli, who resigned from his ministerial office in 1995 and then worked at the World Bank, among others, they all have more regional spheres of influence and observers do not expect them to be great successes across the country Will achieve elections.

The relations between Ennahdha and former members of the RCD are far from being as clearly hostile as they are often portrayed on both sides. For example, Nejib Karoui, personal doctor of Hamadi Jebali, confirmed that his father Hamed, long-time Prime Minister Ben Ali, had been on friendly terms with the Islamist politician for thirty years. It was also Hamed Karoui who, among other things, spoke out against the complete suppression of the Islamists in the early 1990s. But in the end it was Ben Ali who prevailed and brought many Ennahdha followers to prison, into exile or into the underground.

Firmly in family hands

If the politicians usually choose the other networks, they remain trapped in their family structures. And these are still very present in the bourgeoisie in Tunis today, run across party lines and influence the image of politicians in public. The family name alone reveals who is part of the country's former aristocracy. For example, Beji Caid Essebsi is a distant cousin of Mustapha Ben Jaafar, leader of the Ettakatol party and president of the Constitutional Assembly. Yadh Ben Achour, lawyer and 2011 chairman of the instance for the realization of the goals of the revolution (a kind of transitional parliament), is the brother of Rafaa Ben Achour, next to Slim Chaker the second economic strategist of Nidaa Tounes. Nejib Chebbi, chairman of Al Joumhouri and presidential candidate, is married to Omar Mestiri's sister. Together with his wife, the former opposition activist and since 2014 chairman of the newly founded body for dignity and truth Sihem Ben Sedrine, he runs the radio station Kalima. The station was again financed by businessman Nacer Ali Chakroun, who also supported President Moncef Marzouki's CPR campaign in the 2011 elections.

One of the few parties that is relatively far removed from the various networks, even if its origins also lie in the student movement, the Communist Party (POCT), which competes in the elections in the Front Populaire party alliance. Content-related and ideological considerations play a greater role there, while economic, family or regional networks are of less importance than in other parties. However, it is uncertain whether this will be reflected in the election results for the party. Many Tunisian voters are skeptical of not only often opaque power structures, but also communist ideas.