Whether welcomed or feared, Ennahda’s victory in Tunisia’s October 23rd elections was expected by Tunisians and the international public alike. But what about Al Aridha Chaabia, the Popular Petition party? Formed only seven months ago in March of 2011, the party (which is actually a group of independent lists scattered throughout Tunisia’s various districts, all beginning with the same phrase: “The Popular Petition for….”) certainly lacks the historical and political precedent of other proposed forerunners in the elections, such as the PDP, which has been present on the Tunisian political stage since the 1980s.
As the results from Sunday’s elections have flowed in and the Popular Petition party secured ten, then fifteen, then 19 of the 217 seats in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, many Tunisians — politicians and citizens alike – have been left baffled. Where did this enigmatic party come from, and why hasn’t it previously made headlines? Who are its main supporters? Why did it beat out the more well-known contenders that had anticipated winning large numbers of seats in the Assembly? And what kind of a wild card will it throw into the power dynamics of the new Constituent Assembly, particularly if the Popular Petition manages to cooperate with Ennahda, as the former possesses Islamic leanings and the latter has already made clear its intention to cooperate with any party expressing interest in doing so? Or are all of these questions largely irrelevent for the moment, given the rumors currently circulating that Hamdi is making an effort to withdraw all of his lists from the Assembly?
Unsurprisingly, Tunisia Live’s attempts to locate Aridha supporters for comment proved difficult. “As far as I’m concerned, we didn’t even know that [Al Aridha] existed before! Especially here in Monastir. It was a total surprise that Al Aridha got seats,” remarked Mahmoud, a student in the Monastir district.
It appears that Mahmoud’s sentiments are shared across the board. At least three-quarters of the individuals contacted by Tunisia Live, and who live in the districts in which Al Aridha secured seats — as of the moment: Beja, Bizerte, Gabes, Gafsa, Jendouba (although the list was disqualified), Kairouan, Kasserine (disqualified), Kebili, Kef, Manouba, Mahdia, Medenine, Monastir, Nabeul 1 & 2, Sfax 1 (disqualified) & 2, Sidi Bouzid (disqualified), Sousse, Siliana, Tataouine (disqualified), and Zaghouan in Tunisia, as well as France 2 (disqualified) — had previously never heard of the party.
Thus, Al Aridha must appeal to particular sections of Tunisian society that have largely evaded public and media attention, in much the same way that the party has. In a phone interview that Tunisia Live conducted with party founder, Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, Al Aridha’s leader claimed that his party formed itself when Tunisians directly contacted him and urged him to run, assuring Hamdi that they would vote for him. “My supporters then made a petition, Aridha, which they took to other people to sign. 100,000 people signed the petition to support democracy, justice, and development,” he stated.
One clue to Al Aridha’s success stems from Sidi Bouzid, the district in which it at first secured more seats even than Ennahda, the current forerunner in Tunisian politics — earning three seats to Ennahda’s two, before ISIE decided to drop the party’s list in Sidi Bouzid due to electoral law infractions. ISIE’s decision to drop the Al Aridha list of Sidi Bouzid was met with violent protests from the local inhabitants, many of whom felt that the invalidation of the lists was a personal attack against their region of origin. Late Thursday night, they burned a local office affiliated with Ennahda, part of the Mayor’s building, and the local municipality building in protest of the withdrawal of a party that had promised them a better life and more attention to their needs.
Much of Al Aridha’s popularity in Sidi Bouzid can be attributed to the fact that it is Hamdi’s birthplace. Although the leader of Al Aridha lived most of his adult life abroad in London, Hamdi grew up in Sidi Bouzid and therefore can be considered a weld al bilad (a “local”). Hamdi’s regional origins — regardless of where he later ended up — helped many of the governorate’s inhabitants identify with him more directly than with other candidates, particularly since Tunisia’s leaders have historically hailed from the sahil – Tunisia’s more touristy coast – as opposed to inner and southern regions of Tunisia, where Sidi Bouzid is located.
In a telephone conversation with Tunisia Live, Hosni Bouazizi, a Sidi Bouzid resident who voted for Al Aridha, affirmed, “[Hamdi] did not convince me, but he is from Sidi Bouzid, my hometown. I don’t think he is going to fulfill all of his promises, like free health care. So, I don’t believe him, but he is from my hometown.”
Yamina, another Sidi Bouzid resident, expressed similar sentiments, “Whether he persuaded me or not, I still voted for him because I trust him, and he comes from Sidi Bouzid.”
What is more, it appears that this “local” status extends beyond Hamdi’s district of origin and reaches other neighboring areas such as Gafsa, Tataouine, and Kebili, which also comprise the southern inner region of Tunisia. According to Rawia, an Aridha supporter from Tunis, “The South has this complex…All of Tunisia’s presidents were from the coast, so [southerners] want someone from the South to rule. [Hamdi] was speaking their language — literally.” [Here, Rawia alludes to the fact that Tunisians from the South use a “g” sound to replace Arabic’s “q” letter used everywhere else in the country.]
If Hamdi “speaks the language of the people” literally, he does so figuratively, as well. While living in London, Hamdi founded two television channels — the Independent TV Channel, Moustaqila, (founded 1999) and the Democratic Channel (founded 2005). Nearly all of the voters with whom Tunisia Live spoke had heard about Hamdi from his Moustaqila channel, demonstrating the power that an ordinary television set can wield.
In his talk show Hiwarat Tounisiya (“Tunisian Discussions”), Hamdi fields a variety of comments and personal requests from ordinary Tunisian citizens. For example, during a previous episode, one caller requested that Hamdi take action to reduce her husband’s jail sentence.
According to Riadh Laabidi, an activist living in Regueb who defends the rights for the wounded and martyrs of the revolution, “[Hamdi] spoke to us from his channel, and he gained our trust to defend our interests it the Constituent Assembly.”
During the electoral campaign period, Hamdi not only targeted a previously overlooked section of Tunisian society, he also used the appropriate tool to do so: dialogue with a sympathetic politician, broadcast across the television screens of scores of local Tunisians. During another episode of Hiwarat Tounisiya, posted online three months ago, an individual from Kebili by the name of Ibrahim Kassas called into the program to speak with Hamdi, stating, “We will vote for you just because we hate the other [politicians]. At least with you we have the time to talk, and you listen…The political elite speaks a language we don’t understand. They speak a different language: French.” Kassas certainly was convinced by Hamdi’s response—now he is Al Aridha’s head of list in Kebili. Moreover, preliminary results released by the electoral commission have revealed that Kassas has won a seat in the Constituent Assembly.
In fact, Moustaqila has been so effective in spreading knowledge of Hamdi and his lists that the party has not relied on many other forms of political campaigning. According to Laabidi, “We never met any of Hamdi’s representatives or attended any of their meetings. We just watched him on his TV channel.”
Hosni, Hamdi’s campaign manager in Sidi Bouzid, confirmed the party’s modest campaign efforts, claiming that Al Aridha mainly relied on passing out pamphlets with the program of the party printed on them to raise awareness.
“My supporters went to villages, houses, and cafes, and showed Al Aridha’s program to the people. It was a simple way to campaign on a grassroots level and to try to solve people’s problems, ” Hamdi stated in his interview with Tunisia Live.
Hamdi’s lists have also benefited from the fact that he has been able to portray himself as a victim of multiple orders: of the former regime, of the current political powerhouse – Ennahda, and of the mainstream media. “Those who pretend I am from the RCD party talk rubbish. They fabricated false stories about me paying lip service to Ben Ali and his regime in the past, and they do not understand such violent attacks on me…Those who attack me are like wolves, people insulting and degrading me. I have been living in exile for 25 years,” he objected.
Moreover, Hamdi explained that a major reason that he has remained abroad throughout the electoral process is due to the fact that most of his campaign and media activities have been prevented here in Tunisia. “Since its creation, Al Aridha has not been given a single minute to explain its program to the Tunisian people by Tunisian media…Had we been given more air time, we would have won more than 50% in the Constituent Assembly,” he asserted to Tunisia Live.
Casting himself as just as rejected and worthy of sympathy as the populace who eventually voted for him, Hamdi may have touched on a nerve, leading to ordinary Tunisians’ identification with his struggle. “It is shocking to see the media criticizing Mr.Hamdi…We can see that the official media has boycotted him,” stated Laabidi after denouncing these actions.
Furthermore, Hamdi contended that this media boycott has extended to the political stage, as well. “Mustaqila invited politicians from the PDP, the CPR, etc., but they did not bother to reply to my request…I also tried to communicate with Hamadi Jebali but he never replied…Ennahda does not want Al Aridha or any connection with it. They remain my brothers, though, and I hope we can collaborate with them,” he announced.
Perhaps in the refusal of Tunisia’s traditional political elite to take Hamdi seriously, elements of Tunisian society accustomed to having their voices ignored by these same politicians saw in Hamdi a fellow compatriot. This certainly is true in the case of the Sidi Bouzid residents currently protesting the dropping of Hamdi’s list in their hometown and the possibility that Ennahda’s Jebali — who hails from the same region and background as ex-president Ben Ali — will become the next prime minister.
Add Hamdi’s Islamic leanings into this mixture of local status, approachability, and rhetoric of victimhood, and you are left with a very potent concoction. An activist within the Islamist MTI — the precursor to Ennahda – in the 1970s and 1980s, and the author of a doctoral thesis on the politicization of Islam, Hamdi is no stranger to the religion. On the contrary, he quotes the Quran in his speeches and shows the Muslim holy book on screen during his television programs.
Moreover, Hamdi explained to Tunisia Live that his party’s platform is based on a combination of, “…both Islam’s ideals of social justice and freedom, and the British experience of a social welfare system.” According to Rawia, part of Hamdi’s appeal stems from the fact that, “…he focused on people’s feelings about Islam; he knew that Islam was their weakness.”
But is presenting Hechmi Hamdi as the charismatic figurehead of Al Aridha enough to explain the significant number of Constituent Assembly seats that the party has already acquired? In addition to Hamdi’s propitious personality and appropriate background, Al Aridha possesses another aspect that spoke to a large number of voters on October 23rd: a simple program focusing on the most basic and urgent needs vocalized by the population.
According to Hamdi’s statements to Tunisia Live, “[The political elite] are unaware of the hard life of marginalized Tunisians, especially in Sidi Bouzid and in the Hawamed area where I come from. Society has the moral obligation to collectively pay for the poor and the needy.” To this end, the economic and social aspects of Al Aridha’s program include: universal health care, unemployment benefits of 200 dinars for each jobless citizen, free transportation for anyone over the age of 65, and “charity boxes” (“inspired from the Quran and the Prophet Mohamed’s teachings,” according to Hamdi) for those treated unjustly. Hamdi plans to finance these bold programs through collecting taxes from the travel industry and from taxing individuals earning more than 100,000 dinars, with a focus on the “big companies of the Ben Ali era.”
The appeal of Al Aridha’s program to the impoverished and often overlooked elements of Tunisian society is, therefore, not difficult to decipher. Furthermore, whether or not these promises are realistic remained largely irrelevant during the electoral process, drawing Rawia to conclude, “Ennahda had realistic plans, but [Hamdi] gave [the people] what they wanted to hear.”
Regardless, Al Aridha’s striking and unexpected popularity reveals the fact that many of Tunisia’s political parties have failed to properly address and respond to the needs of Tunisia’s poorer and more marginalized inhabitants – in many respects, the true initiators of Tunisia’s revolution in January. “Al Aridha represents what people revolted for and their aspirations for dignity,” Hamdi summarized succinctly when speaking with Tunisia Live. Moreover, the party’s sweeping success sheds light on the enormous weight that can be gained by addressing these demands appropriately.
What remains to be seen, however, is to what extent Hamdi will be able to fulfill his monumental promises, and what will be the people’s response if he does not. Moreover, accusations continue to swirl around Hamdi’s alleged affiliations with the former RCD party. Accusations which, to the moment, have remained unsubstantiated.
Amidst all this speculation, the electoral commission (ISIE) has announced that several of the party’s lists have been dropped — in the districts of Tataouine, Sfax 1, Jendouba, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and France 2 — due to electoral law infractions by People’s Petition lists, causing the party to lose a total of eight seats. Moreover, a recent broadcast on Mosaique revealed rumors that Hamdi himself has decided to withdraw his lists from the Assembly. These recent events have led to protests in Sidi Bouzid and Sfax.
One thing is certain, however: whether Al Aridha maintains its fourth place finish in the Constituent Assembly or completely withdraws its lists, either outcome will produce monumental repercussions for Tunisian politics.
This article was updated at 11 am, October 28th, to include new information from ISIE, first-hand accounts in Sidi Bouzid and Sfax, and personal statements given to Tunisia Live by Mr.Hamdi, himself.