Seven million Tunisians headed to the polls on Sunday in the country’s second presidential election since its 2011 revolution, faced with a crowded list of candidates, uncertainty and widespread disillusion over the country’s progress in the past eight years.
Twenty-six candidates are running in the unpredictable first round. They include the media mogul Nabil Karoui, who is in prison on corruption charges that he denies, the prime minister, Youssef Chahed, and Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahda party.
Seventy thousand police officers and 30,000-plus troops have been deployed around a country where there has been sporadic, but sometimes serious, terrorist attacks in recent years.
In La Marsa, the wealthy seaside neighbourhood of Tunis, early voting on Sunday morning was busy. As the prime minister emerged from a polling station surrounded by a scrum of photographers, Lofti Jalassi, 52, followed with his son. Like many Tunisians during the campaign, he complained about the trajectory of the country since the revolution that launched the Arab spring in 2011.
“The last eight years have seen the political parties just running to keep their seats and power,” he said. “They have been chasing corruption while crime and unemployment has been going up and values declining.”
Maha Dakhlaouy, a 25-year old judge, was more optimistic. She cited freedom of speech, huge steps forward for women’s rights and the choice of candidates.
“It’s extraordinary the choice of candidates we have,” she told the Guardian. “Yes, the last eight years have been worse than people expected, but not as bad as they were before [during the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali].
“In the end I thought for a long time about what was the most important issue. And for me that was integrity. So I voted for Mohammed Abou, who is a lawyer who has fought against corruption.”
The issue of security, along with Tunisia’s persistent economic problems, is cited by many during the last days of campaigning as a source of discontent.
On the beach in the Tunisian resort of Sousse last week, Mohammed Ben Saad, 46, the manager of a water sports rental recalled the terrorist attack that hit this beach in 2015, killing dozens of foreign tourists including 30 Britons, which plunged Tunisia’s tourist industry into an economic crisis from which it has yet to recover.
“I remember everything. The shooting. I remember people trying to escape. I remember the dead and the bodies. It changed everything for us. We used to work six months of the year, now it is only for two months.”
For Ben Saad, the impact of the attack – one of two to target tourists in Tunisia that year – is part of a bigger crisis in the country – an economic and political one that he is uncertain will be resolved by either Sunday’s voting in presidential elections or the parliamentary elections that are due to follow.
“Nothing is good. We don’t like the political and economic situation. Everything is getting more expensive.”
Like the rest of the country, says Ben Saad, he was full of hope eight years ago when Tunisia’s revolution occurred, triggering the Arab spring and the fall of its Ben Ali.
“I was optimistic, like everyone else in 2011. But then [the moderate Islamist party] Ennahda came to govern the country. They took a lot of money. They let out a lot of prisoners and shut their eyes to illegal immigration. Four people who used to work with me are in Italy now. Looking at the situation now I’m also thinking of leaving the country.”
Beyond Sousse, in the villages and towns of the coastal hinterland, the mood is even bleaker. In the small bustling town of Sidi El Heni, Sufian Ben Youssef, who is unemployed, and his friend Ahmad Ben Moussa, 26, who runs his own small import-export business, are drinking coffee in a cafe as other patrons play noisy games of rummy.
“I’m not going to vote,” says Ben Youssef emphatically. “Hardly any of the youth here is registered to vote. People don’t care and unemployment and the economic crisis are the main reasons. I’m going to vote,” interrupts Ben Moussa. “We have to have hope and want to improve the situation. We need to find the right person to fix it.”
Where the men agree is that the new class of politicians that emerged following the long Ben Ali era have let Tunisians down. “They didn’t realise any of the promises they made to us,” says Ben Moussa. “The unemployment and the economic crisis has got even worse. It’s all been lies!”
It is a feeling of disillusion that has inspired something unthinkable even four years ago: a mounting sense of nostalgia for the days of Tunisia’s former strong man if not for Ben Ali himself.
The political analyst Oussama Hlel believes that the current round of elections represents an important moment for Tunisia.
“We are at a crossroads and are being asked to choose between two paths: whether we want to continue with the process launched by the revolution or whether to change our constitutional arrangements which some candidates are talking about.”
In particular, Hlel notes a new wave of populism in the language of many of the campaigns in response to a growing disillusion with many of the parties that have emerged since the 2011 revolution.
That in turn has been driven by a widespread disappointment with the last coalition government that united different factions of the two winning parties of the 2014 election: the secular and disintegrating Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamists Ennahda.
The disappointment among voters has not, however, led to disengagement. “On the evidence of the public opinion research we do we have found Tunisians are more determined to vote than ever,” said Les Campbell, one of the joint heads of the US IRI/NDI election observation mission.
On Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the broad boulevard that was at the centre of 2011’s mass demonstrations that toppled the Ben Ali regime, Afifa Ouerghi, 53, was discussing the country’s political trajectory with her sister Soumaya.
An English teacher from one of the city’s northern suburbs, Afifa reflects the same uncertainty as those out in the countryside. “Of course I’ll vote. You have to. But the country is unstable and its future is not clear.”
Referring to the growing nostalgia for the Ben Ali era, she is less keen on the comparison although she would like to see a stronger leader either in the president’s palace or as prime minister.
“There is some nostalgia but I don’t feel it. It’s not better, it’s just different. We got rid of one kind of corruption to face another one.”