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.
Alarmed at the flood of money, the commission overseeing the political transition sought in June to impose rules limiting campaign spending, banning foreign contributions and even barring candidates from giving interviews to foreign-owned news media, a move thought to be aimed mainly at thwarting the potential of the Qatar-owned network al-Jazeera to favor Ennahdha candidates.
Ennahdha officials say they have followed the rules, which apply only to the final weeks of the campaign and they deny any foreign financing. The accusations about Gulf money are “completely baseless,” the party’s founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, said recently at a news conference. After supporting itself for 40 years of oppression and exile, he said, his party now counts members of the Tunisian elite among its donors. Moreover, he added, his moderate and democratic Islamic politics have hardly endeared him to the Gulf autocracies; he is barred from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Ennahdha’s supporters, for their part, point to Slim Riahi, founder of the Free Patriotic Union Party, which election officials say has been another one of the biggest spenders here. An expatriate businessman who made an oil fortune in late strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, Riahi has no history in politics, scant history in Tunisia and no discernible ideology. His party’s best-known candidate is the former soccer star Shokri Waa. Asked whether the party was better described as center-left or center-right, a spokesman said, “center-center.”
Ennahdha’s main rival, the Progressive Democratic Party, has also advertised heavily on billboards around the country in a full Western-style political campaign rivaling Riahi’s. In its final rallies, the party’s leaders publicly thanked, but did not name the Tunisian businesspeople who it said had paid for its lavish campaign.
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