The results of the elections to the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly – held on 23rd October 2011 – were gradually promulgated earlier this week, with the 217 available seats being split between a variety of parties; Harakat an-Nahda (‘Renaissance Party’), an entity led by the moderately charismatic Rashid al-Ghannushi, won the largest block, with talks for the formation of a coalition government with the Congrès pour la République and Ettakatol parties ongoing. The election has been hailed as something of a blueprint for other elections ensuing from the Arab Spring, with many of the more prominent of the 500 international observers giving a resoundingly positive assessment of the process; al-Ghannushi has been magnanimous in victory, seemingly going out of his way to build an inclusive national consensus on the way forward for his country – the Renaissance Party is not even fielding a candidate for the post of president lest this upset the political equilibrium in Tunisia.
Yet despite the rather prosaic facts on the ground, much of the media coverage of the Tunisian elections – at least in the Anglosphere – was shrill, alarmist and seemingly incognisant of large areas of political thought and practice. We at Mediolana were especially disappointed at the treatment of the following issues:
1. Gender and Procedure. In the days leading up to the election, a flurry of articles appeared that heavily inferred the impending marginalisation of Tunisian women owing to the fact that women headed only 6% of electoral lists: the presence of women in the National Constituent Assembly would be negligible, and the stage would be set for the ‘inevitable’ disenfranchisement of the nation’s females. This was, needless to say, a bizarre notion. Firstly, a high percentage of female legislators in a country’s parliament, while sometimes a great bonus, is in no way a guarantee that women’s rights will be respected or that repressive laws and/or customs will not be upheld: South Africa (rape), Afghanistan (insecurity) and Sudan (female genital mutilation) are countries synonymous with grossly negative social phenomena, particularly from the standpoint of women, yet which vaunt incredibly high proportions of female lawmakers.
Secondly and more specifically, such gloomy articles ignored not only Tunisian election law, which stipulates the alternation of gender on electoral lists, but knowledge of how the party list system actually works: even if women had been placed second, fourth, etc. on every single list, they would still have won a very considerable percentage of seats in the National Constituent Assembly. This point was completely lost on so many analysts that we at Mediolana wonder whether they have recovered from the final results, which saw women capture 24% of the seats in the Tunisian parliament – a record, and a greater proportion than countries such as the United Kingdom (22%) and the United States (<17%).
2. Islamism. Throughout much of the election coverage, Tunisia’s Renaissance Party was referred to as a movement of ideological extremism or potential ideological extremism to such an extent that their actual policies – protection of the 1956 Code of Personal Status and a commitment to pluralism – were largely overshadowed. Much of the media seemed unable to distinguish between or even know very much about different forms of Islamism, and appeared to be genuinely surprised at al-Ghannushi’s conciliatory language and actions – a reaction that betrays a worrying lack of familiarity with the political discourse in a huge chunk of the world.
This does not bode well for coverage of the forthcoming elections in Egypt, where there are chasms not just between secularist and Islamist parties, but the various strands of Islamism reflected in the numerous Islamist political organisations, from the modernist and polarising (Al-Nour, ‘Party of Light‘); to the more mainstream (Freedom and Justice Party or FJP); through to the exceptionally pluralist (Al-Wasat, ‘New Centre Party‘). Mediolana expects confusion and incoherence to reign supreme across vast swathes of the international media.