Mon, Oct 24, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Financing issues shadow Tunisia’s Arab Spring vote

SHOWING THE MONEY:The Ennahdha party, which is the best organized, is accused of being supported by Gulf allies, a charge its founder says is ‘completely baseless’

NY Times News Service, TUNIS

The international press center is pictured in Tunis on Saturday on the eve of national election in Tunisia.

Photo: AFP

As Tunisians prepared to vote yesterday in the first election of the Arab Spring, the parties and their supporters ramped up a bitter debate over allegations about the influence of “dirty money” behind the scenes of the race.

Liberals, facing an expected defeat by the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, charged that it leapt ahead with financial support from Persian Gulf allies. Some Islamists and residents of the impoverished interior, meanwhile, fault the liberals, saying they relied on money from the former dictator’s business elite. And all sides gawk at the singular spectacle of an expatriate businessman who made a fortune in Libyan oil and returned home after the revolution to spend much of it building a major political party.

In the first national election since the ouster of the former Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, voters were to choose an assembly that would govern the country while writing a new constitution. The vote is a bellwether for the Arab world and the debate over the role of political spending is a case study of the forces at play in Tunisia and around the region.

However, the debate also illustrates the mixture of elation and worry that has accompanied Tunisia’s progress toward democracy: Freed from the overt coercion and corruption of Ben Ali’s regime, many now fear that more subtle forces are trying to pull the strings from behind the scenes, in part though political money.

In a country with virtually no previous grassroots political participation, where more than 100 new or little-known political parties have raced to introduce themselves to the public, “it is a very fast track, and whatever means they have at their disposal is going to make a big difference,” said Eric Goldstein, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has tracked Tunisia’s steps since the revolt.

Ennahdha, which had a long history of opposition in Tunisia before Ben Ali eviscerated it a decade ago, was widely expected to fare the best, and no one pretends that it owes its popularity only to its financial clout. Its moderate and modern brand of Islamic politics has struck a chord with many Tunisians.

For months, however, it has been at the center of attacks from liberal rivals and liberal-leaning election officials who accuse it of taking foreign money, mainly from the Persian Gulf. Islamist groups from Egypt to Lebanon are widely believed to rely on such support from the wealthier and more conservative Gulf nations, but the charges have resonated especially loudly in Tunisia, in part because regulators have sought to stamp it out.

“Everybody says that Ennahdha is backed by money from the [Persian] Gulf,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, founder of the liberal Democratic Modernist Pole coalition, calling the outsize influence of foreign money a threat to Tunisia’s “fragile democracy.”

Though Ennahdha’s sources of financing have not been disclosed, its resources are evident. The first party to open offices in towns across the country, Ennahdha soon blanketed Tunisia with fliers, T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers. Unlike other parties here, it operates out of a gleaming high-rise in downtown Tunis, gives away professionally published paperbacks in several languages to lay out its platform, distributes wireless headsets for simultaneous translation at its news conferences and hands out bottled water to the crowds at rallies.

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