TUNIS (Reuters) - At Tunis airport arrivals terminal last month, hundreds of Tunisians gathered waving flags to greet a special guest — not a sports legend or popstar, but a former minister from ousted President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s government.
Three years after Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” forced the autocrat out and set the North African country on path to democracy, Ben Ali regime old guard are not only making a comeback but are poised again to win elected posts.
After approving a new constitution this year, in October Tunisia will hold its second parliamentary election since the revolt. In November, it will hold presidential elections that are seen as a test of its newly found democracy.
Prominent among candidates for the legislature and for the presidency are former officials and cabinet ministers from the Ben Ali regime, who are pitting themselves against Islamist party that governed after Tunisia’s first free election.
After the 2011 revolution, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and most of his aides and ministers disappeared, were imprisoned and prevented from participating in the first elections won by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda.
The return of the so-called “Remnants” to the political scene has opened up debate over the legacy of the 2011 revolution that helped inspire the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria and eventually led Tunisia to become a model for democratic change.
“All we want is to build Tunisia without exclusion, it must be a new phase in which everyone contributes in building the country,” Ben Ali’s former transport minister Abderrahim Zouari told Reuters. “I hope to go beyond this debate because Tunisia needs all its men and women.”
Zouari, who is running for the presidential elections for the Constitutional Movement party, is just one of several former Ben Ali cabinet members running in that ballot.
Former regime officials will also be a strong presence in the parliamentary elections and analysts expect them to have ample chance in the elections in regional cities and towns where they still retain their influence.
Tunisia’s democratic transition contrasts sharply with Egypt and Libya, which have both struggled with the role of former regime officials versus new political systems since their own 2011 revolutions.
Political compromise between Islamists and secular rivals has more than once pulled Tunisia back from the brink of political crisis, and helped keep it from the type of polarised chaos now engulfing neighbouring Libya.
In Tunisia’s 2011 election, a temporary law prevented all officials of former regime from participating. But now they can participate in elections after the Ennadha agreed with secular opponents to reject the new draft law to ban Ben Ali officials.
That contrasts sharply with Libya, where a similar political isolation law has been the source of armed clashes and court battles between rival factions looking to gain political influence, often at the barrel of the gun.
Rached Ghannouchi, chief of Ennahda defended his party’s decision, saying that such a law would have only increased the division of Tunisians in the sensitive time in its transition.
“In the end, the ballot box will have the final word,” he said.
After coming to power in a coalition government, Ennahda were accused by secular opponents of coddling Islamist hardliners, of economic mismanagement, and trying to bring Islam deeper into politics in the Arab world’s most secular nation.
The assassination of two opposition leaders last year by Islamist extremist gunmen tipped Tunisia into a political crisis that eventually forced Ennahda to step down and make way for a transitional government that will rule until the elections.
Still, most analysts widely expect Ennahda, one of the country’s most organised political movements, and its secular rival Nida Tounes, will turn out the election winners.
But the Ben Ali old guard will also book their place, hoping to promote the skills and technocrat knowledge they say they gained in government as a way to help Tunisia with the sluggish economy and militant threats it now faces.
Like many other former Ben Ali officials and regular Tunisians, those ministers would have been members of the autocrat’s now-banned Constitutional Democratic Rally party.
“People have to compare to what it was before the revolution and what those people are now,” Kamel Morjan, a former foreign minister. “It is normal that there will be some candidates from the party composed of millions of Tunisians for years.”
Beji Caid Essebsi — the head of Nida Tounes and a former president of Ben Ali’s parliament in 1991 — has become a leading presidential candidate after becoming a rallying figure for secular opposition during last year’s crisis.
Mondher Znaidi, a former Ben Ali health minister, who was welcomed as a hero at the airport in Tunis last month has also announced also his intention to run in presidential elections.
Ennahda has said the party will not field a presidential candidate, instead focusing on the parliamentary vote which may give them more sway in influencing the selection of the more powerful prime minister’s post.
With Tunisia facing a tough combination of Islamist militant violence, a stagnant economy and worries over high costs and unemployment, old regime officials like Znaidi are taking the chance to tout their achievements in economics and security.
But the return of the officials who once worked side by side with Ben Ali is a hard sell for the younger Tunisians who took to the streets to rid their country of what they saw as a generation of politicians led by a corrupt oligarchy.
Even if old regime officials have a right to participate in the election, for some their return is a setback for an uprising that inspired Egyptians, Syrians and Libyans to follow them.
“After that we are seeing, what is next?” asked politician Omar Shabou. “All we need now is for Ben Ali himself to come back and ask for forgiveness.”
Writing by Patrick Markey Editing by Dominic Evans