Tunisia's Surprise Success Story—And What He Means for the New Democracy

Three lessons from the curious case of Hachemi Hamdi, a TV magnate who came in fourth out of 100-plus parties despite little expectation of success

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Men in Sidi Bouzid look over the damage from protests that broke out after the election commission cancelled a number of votes here / AP

TUNIS, Tunisia -- On October 23, Tunisians showed up in droves to vote in what were hailed as the Arab world's first free and fair elections. Yet no sooner had international observers and media declared the elections a success than controversy and violence erupted, reminding people of the fragility of Tunisia's transition and the challenges that yet remain. The tensions stemmed from the unexpected triumph of Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition), a little known party led by a nebulous figure named Hachemi Hamdi. In fact, the success of Mr. Hamdi's party, and the controversy it has provoked, offer a number of lessons about Tunisia's still emerging politics.

Hamdi is a successful London-based businessman and the founder of two conservative satellite television channels. In the 1980s, he was a member of an Islamist opposition party called the Mouvement de Téndances Islamiste (MTI), which later changed its name to al-Nahda and swept last week's election to win 41 percent of the vote. More recently, Hamdi has been accused of cutting deals with the Ben Ali regime and pushing pro-regime rhetoric on his channels. Before the elections, Hamdi barely figured into the political discourse; Aridha Chaabia was expected to perform so poorly that it was left off all public opinion polls. But through populist messages broadcast repeatedly on his satellite channels, in apparent violation of election laws restricting airtime allotted to each party, Aridha captured the attention -- and, ultimately, the votes -- of a large number of Tunisians. It won 19 of the 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly, which will draft the country's constitution and design its government, making it the fourth best-represented party.

To say that this outcome came as a surprise to most political observers would be a significant understatement. The strong showing of the party shocked many Tunisians, particularly in cosmopolitan Tunis. Those in the secular camp accused the party of being part of an al-Nahda strategy to gain more seats; others accused the party of being supported by old regime elements. Last week, in the middle of its days-long effort to tally votes, the electoral commission decided to invalidate nine of Aridha's seats due to campaign finance violations, which reduced the party's representation in the assembly (it would have been the third-best represented had it kept the votes).

But what Aridha Chaabia's detractors miss is that the party does have a large base of supporters. Last week those supporters made their frustration with the commission's decision to cancel the votes clear. A number of people took the street to protest, sometimes violently, including in Sidi Bouzid, the very city where the revolution began. 

It was disappointing to be in Tunisia last week and watch this historic election -- the first of the Arab Spring -- marred by this setback and the angry response. Yet the rise of Hamdi's party, with its popularity outside of metropolitan Tunis, and the controversy it created, reveal three important lessons about Tunisian politics and some of the challenges the country must still overcome in the months and years ahead. 

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Hachemi Hamdi / Wikimedia

First, the interior of the country matters politically. Contrary to the pre-election political coverage, which focused primarily on debates between secular groups and Islamists, Tunisia's most daunting challenge in the coming years will be to address the inequalities, both economic and social, between the wealthy coastal towns and the impoverished interior. This divide played a crucial role in the election and in Aridha's success. While most political parties paid lip service to this inequality during the campaign, very few actually made a concerted effort to empower the disenfranchised in the south -- where, don't forget, the revolution began. But Hamdi, born and raised in Sidi Bouzid, focused his campaign almost exclusively on the interior. For a population long neglected by the government, it's not surprising that interior Tunisians would support a party who was willing to reach out and listen to their needs.

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Daphne McCurdy is a senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

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