As the results of Tunisia's Constituent Assembly elections trickled in, Al Aridha Chaabia, or the Popular Petition party, appeared out of nowhere. Given its lack of media coverage, it appears that prior to October 23rd, fellow politicians and the media alike had either never heard of the party “ which was formed only seven months ago, in March of 2011 “ or neglected to pay it any serious notice.
Yet, when other proposed forerunners in the elections, such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM), performed poorly against the unknown newcomers, Al Aridha began to fall under closer scrutiny. With the party's increasing yield in seats in the Constituent Assembly came increasing media coverage, and with this escalating attention came spiraling speculation. Allegations that Hechmi Hamidi, the party's leader and founder, was affiliated with Tunisia's former RCD party (the party of the ousted president Ben Ali) began to circulate. When these claims were coupled with accusations that Hamidi “ the owner of Moustaqila television station, which broadcasts out of London “ violated electoral codes concerning funding and advertising during the electoral campaign period, speculation had become high-stakes controversy.
The Plot Thickens
Amidst the heightening debate, and simultaneous to the release of the complete results of the October 23rd elections, the electoral commission (ISIE) announced the dismissal of several of Al Aridha's lists at a press conference held on October 27th. Due to what ISIE termed as electoral law infractions, the party's candidate lists from the districts of Tataouine, Sfax 1, Jendouba, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and France 2 were dismissed, causing the party to lose a total of eight seats. The announcement elicited raucous cheers and an enthusiastic round of the Tunisian national anthem from the crowd of journalists in the auditorium of ISIE’s media center.
In an equally dramatic and unexpected response, less than two hours after ISIE's announcement that the Assembly would dismiss six of Al Aridha's lists, Hamidi himself gave an interview to the popular Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM, urgently entreating the remaining heads of lists of his party to withdraw their lists from the Constituent Assembly.
When Tunisia Live questioned Hamidi concerning what he described as a spontaneous decision, Al Aridha's leader responded that he did so in protest of ISIE's rejection of countless Tunisians viewpoints. I did that originally because [ISIE] canceled our results in six provinces. Their cancellation of tens of thousands of Tunisian voters' opinions¦I just couldn't accept that. I felt it was a great injustice, and I was hurt, he explained.
The Al Aridha leader continued by expressing the offense felt by his supporters when, upon hearing of the cancelling of Al Aridha's lists, an auditorium packed with media figures in ISIE's Media Center burst into cheers — during a press conference broadcast on national television. I felt that it was an even greater injustice to see on live TV millions of Tunisians standing up and chanting when the lists were dismissed. I had the impression that there is a political crowd that does not want us to have our rights. I felt it was better to withdraw. My initial decision was to reflect the feeling [of my voters]. We felt hurt and let down, not only by the commission, but also by the people chanting and cheering [when the lists were dismissed], the Al Aridha leader protested to Tunisia Live.
Climax: A Charring Change
That same night, the series of events continued their rapid escalation when ISIE's decision to drop the Al Aridha lists and Hamidi's subsequent Mosaique interview spurred violent protests in Sidi Bouzid, one of the districts in which Hamdi's lists were dismissed by ISIE.
The fact that Sidi Bouzid is Hamidi's own hometown made the issue substantially more personal for Sidi Bouzid residents, and the affair took on a geographic and class dimension when many of Sidi Bouzid's residents regarded the rejection of Hamidi and the Al Aridha lists as a wider rejection of the town itself, as well as an insult to their intelligence and ability to vote for the candidate most suitable to their interests.
Late in the night on October 27th, Sidi Bouzid residents 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. These protests continued into the following day and extended to neighboring areas, such as Meknessi, Menzel Bouzayene, Regab, and even to Sfax.
Yet less than twenty-four hours later, on Friday, October 28th, Hamidi announced on Hanibal TV the revocation of his previous statement. He now encouraged Al Aridha lists to keep their seats in the Constituent Assembly. When questioned about his dramatic change of heart during a phone interview with Tunisia Live, Hamidi explained that the decision came as the result of a long phone call with head of ISIE, Kamel Jendoubi, in which the latter explained to Hamidi that it was the decision of the heads of lists whether or not to withdraw, not the decision of Hamidi, himself.
Hamdi also explained to Tunisia Live that an additional factor which had swayed his resolve to revoke his lists was that, ¦Some people had responded by doing peaceful things, but others were not so peaceful. This is against the ideals of democracy, and I don't agree [with it]. I didn't want anyone to use what happened to us to support violence, so I had to reconsider. For the sake of the whole country and to avoid future violence, I decided to change my [statement].
Hamidi may have revoked his previous statement urging heads of lists to resign from the Constituent Assembly, however, he did not drop the issue altogether. The Al Aridha leader explained to Tunisia Live that although he respects Kamel Jendoubi, he was surprised by ISIE's decision, which he later attributed to class politics and the gap between leaders and the led. There is a part of the elite in Tunis, the capital, which started a very malicious campaign against me and Al Aridha. They didn't accept the results [of the elections], he explained.
Therefore, Hamidi subsequently charged the heads of Al Aridha's dropped lists to take their case to the courts the following day to petition the Popular Petition's rejection. According to Selem, Al Aridha's head of list in Gafsa and the spokesperson for the party, the dropped lists will find out from the Court of Appeals on November 4th if they will be permitted in the Constituent Assembly.
Despite this inconclusiveness, the next episode in the Al Aridha saga is clear for the moment “ at least for Hamidi. In his interview with Tunisia Live, the politician did not deny that he expects his party to continue to take the front seat in Tunisian politics. In the next elections, the main choice will be between Al Aridha and Ennahda, he confidently told Tunisia Live. Moreover, Moncef Ben Salem — head of Al Aridha’s list in Nabeul 2 — revealed that Al Aridha members previously reached a significant deal with Hamidi: if Al Aridha won at least 53% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, the members would reciprocate by electing Hamidi for presidency.
Rising Stakes and Heightened Tensions
Yet, for local and international media and politicians, this subsequent chapter of Al Aridha's story remains hazy. The plot deepened further when, following Hamidi's speech on October 27th urging all of his lists to withdraw, several heads of Al Aridha's lists — particularly in Nabeul 2 and Sfax 2 — attempted to splinter off from the rest of the Al Aridha party.
Moncef Ben Salem, the Nabeul 2 head of list, told Tunisia Live that he attempted to splinter off from Al Aridha after taking offense at Hamidi's speech, asserting that the decision whether or not to withdraw his candidacy should have been an individual decision.
Al Aridha's campaign manager in Sidi Bouzid, Hosni, echoed these sentiments. He expressed that Hamidi's decision to go over the heads of these individuals — who had earned their places in the Constituent Assembly — perhaps was just one more point of contention in the already tense relationship between Hamidi and the local Aridha heads of lists, several of whom outright refused his entreaty to resign.
At the same time, Hosni is confident that some ulterior motive must lie behind the list heads' desire to splinter off. It's a dirty conspiracy. It's a play¦They must have some hidden interests. If you agree with the program, there is no reason to cause someone to splinter off, he asserted.
It is in this context that a party meeting was held on October 30th in Monastir, in which Hamidi was streamed in via Skype from London. Hamidi claimed to those present that it is not legally possible for any member to splinter off from Al Aridha while maintaining his or her seat in the Constituent Assembly. Instead, the Al Aridha leader explained that any person diverging from the party and currently holding a seat in the Assembly would be replaced by the next individual on his or her district's list.
The October 30th meeting appeared to do the trick; the individuals attempting to branch off immediately revoked their previous decisions. In explanation, Ben Salem admitted to Tunisia Live that he decided not to splinter off from Al Aridha after all because he did not wish to revoke his seat in the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, he asserted that his decision to remain a part of Al Aridha Chaabia was “…in Tunisia’s best interest.”
Although the Hechmi Hamdi saga currently has a cliffhanger ending, stay tuned for updates from Tunisia Live as the developments continue to unfold.
Reporting in collaboration with Wiem Melki