Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Islamist Nahdha party, winner of the Constituent Assembly election of October 23, 2011, declared at a meeting of his party on November 13, 2011, that Tunisia was entering the 6th Caliphate. This comment provoked strong reactions and condemnations from the Tunisian political elite, as well as political cartoons lampooning Jebali as the next “caliph” of Tunisia. Jebali and his lieutenants attempted to deflect the controversy by saying the quote had been taken out of context. What is this all about?

In the Muslim political imaginary, the khulafa’ al-rashidun represent an idealized moment in history, that of the first four caliphs, the rightly-guided, who came after the prophet Muhammad: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The period from the death of the prophet in 632 to that of Ali in 661 marks a golden era after which political history is conceived as having degenerated. However, Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-720) from the Umayyad dynasty is often seen as part of the rightly-guided Caliphs and defines what is often dubbed the “5th caliphate”. He exemplifies the possibility of being a pious and just ruler in times of corruption.

Jebali used that reference from Islamic history to speak about political regeneration within an Islamic idiom. Representatives of al-Nahdha insisted afterwards that the reference to the caliphate was symbolic, and did not put into question al-Nahdha’s commitment to the republican regime and to the people’s will as the foundation for government. However, their adversaries responded that words mattered, and that the evocation of the caliphate in public political discourses was not simply a “symbolic matter.” Indeed, the notion of Caliphate is also related to that of the Islamic state, and mentioning the caliphate in times of political transition is not a small matter.

The controversy around the 6th caliphate illustrates the new public contentions emerging in Tunisia around the language that Tunisians now use to discuss politics. For 55 years, the language of liberal democracy was used in an authoritarian context. During the first months of a more democratic context, Tunisians have been giving free reign to their freedom of expression in the streets, the new media, the written press, the radio and the television, and the new tribunes of political parties, state institutions and civil organizations. A new variegated terrain for politics and new political idioms are emerging, and this new phase of the political history of Tunisia will certainly be punctuated by this sort of controversies. A new political language is being negotiated, and one point of contention will be if and how the Islamic tradition will be woven in this language, and what legal and institutional impact it will have.

The other political parties have reacted strongly, so strongly that Ettakattol has suspended its participation in the negotiations for the formation of the new government, asking Jebali to clarify his position. Although al-Nahdha has won the election, being the party that obtained the most but not the absolute majority of seats, the Islamist party faces the constraints of having to govern in a coalition. More broadly, it is now in the public eye: its leaders’ discourses are closely watched and echoed by the new media. Paradoxically, their discourses did not count much in Tunisian politics before the revolution since they were not in power or not even part of the legal opposition, whereas today their margin of maneuver is limited by the strong resistance they encounter from the rest of the political elite.

The Islamic public figures who will govern Tunisia will now be forced to define their political language with more clarity, in particular in the ways this language relates to Islam and to the future political reforms. Their platform speaks of a “civil state,” which is in contrast with the institution of the caliphate. Al-Nahdha’s leadership knows very well that these two concepts have been in conflict in the modern history of Islam: Muslim intellectuals have discussed the legitimacy of the caliphate as well as alternative forms of political institutions in the 20th century, from Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq to  Tunisian Abd al-Aziz al-Thaalibi. These are not debates that one can describe as “foreign” to the history of the intellectual life of Tunisians. Will al-Nahdha demonstrate its political and intellectual rigor by providing public intellectuals who will fully and thoughtfully engage with such urgent questions? After 55 years of authoritarianism, during which the very articulation of truly public political discourse was of the order of the impossible, will we be able to think clearly and deeply about the language we want to articulate when we speak about politics? This will involve much more than mere words pronounced in Arabic or French to please specific constituencies. In the end, whether we want a “republic” or a “caliphate” will depend on the specific meanings we give to these two institutions, how we relate them to past political histories and how we imagine their future.

Hamadi Jebali’s comment is not just a matter of “symbols.” If the mention of the caliphate was simply the consequence of a moment of carelessness, he needs to clarify his position. Today in Tunisia the mention of a republic is less contentious than that of a caliphate, but we should not forget that it was under a republican regime that authoritarianism flourished for more than half a century. In the new post-revolutionary Tunisia, language –its form and its meanings– matters. How the elected government, and the parties participating in it, al-Nahdha, the Congress for the Republic, and Ettakatol, describe and define the future political institutions matters, because Tunisians want to know how those whom they have elected will reform their political institutions to ensure democratic life and political accountability.

Tunisians are preparing for the election of a 218 members constituent assembly on October 23, 2011. This assembly’s task will be crucial: prepare and vote the new constitution of the second republic of Tunisia, appoint a new government, and legislate. Contrary to the Egyptians, they have decided not to amend their constitution before proceeding to elect a new legislative assembly. The old Tunisian Constitution was suspended on March 23, and the current interim government is governing by way of decrees. Headed by Kamel Jendoubi, a long time opponent to Ben Ali’s regime who was president of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights, a High Independent Committee for the Elections is organizing the electoral process (http://www.isie.tn/). The old practice of organizing the election through the Ministry of Interior –a procedure borrowed from French electoral tradition—has ended. The registration process began on July 1 and will end on August 2, unless the deadline is changed. Overall 7.5 million voters, Tunisian men and women 18 or older, are expected to register.

In spite of a strong media campaign under the slogan uqayyit bish tqayyid: “it is time to register” (see the clips at http://www.isie.tn/) appealing to all walks of Tunisian society, the registration process has been disappointingly slow, which has alarmed the Committee as well as many Tunisians and foreign observers. To this day (July 29), 4 days before the official end of the registration process, only 16% of the voters have registered, approximately 1,350 000 Tunisians. The Committee’s Facebook page provides the new numbers everyday at http://www.facebook.com/isietn?sk=app_100499533382576.

How is it possible that after massively rising up against authoritarianism, screaming “dégage!” and being obeyed by their dictator, who left the country on January 14, 2011, Tunisians seem to lack enthusiasm toward the ballot box? Whereas women were present in the demonstrations against the regime and the new electoral law makes gender parity on electoral lists compulsory, female participation in the registration process is only 20%. The revolution was said to be the “youth revolution,” but the most represented age group among registered voters so far is the 40-50 years old.

How can we explain this paradox? Didn’t Tunisians topple down their president to be able to vote democratically in a transparent and truly competitive process after more than 50 years of authoritarianism during which no democratic electoral process ever took place? Or are we already in a situation not unlike that of liberal democracies plagued with voters disaffection?

There are several answers to this question, from the technical to the political. To begin with, the registration process was slow to start, because of technical malfunctions in many registration offices. However, if there are stories of technical faults in the registration process, many offices –there are more than 400 scattered on the national territory—have remained almost empty. This means that the main reason for the disaffection is political: to register is in itself a vote of confidence in the interim government and in the transition process. There is, indeed, a crisis of confidence in Tunisia today. The departure of Ben Ali has propelled institutional and political reforms, but for many, they are insufficient.  On the bright side, the Constitutional Democratic Rally –the ruling party before the revolution—has been dissolved by a court decision on March 9, political prisoners have been freed, new electoral and press laws have been voted, and political parties have been authorized. However, the justice system is slow to judge those responsible of more than 200 deaths during the protests. On the other hand, Ben Ali’s trials have been too speedy for the truth about the responsibilities of repression before and after December 17, 2010 to be revealed publicly. There is still deep popular distrust of the police and of the ministry of Interior more generally. The interim government, which was not elected, has little legitimacy and therefore is not ready to make in depth reforms. The economic situation is worsening, with an economic growth close to zero, increasing unemployment and higher inflation, a few days before the start of the month of Ramadan, a month during which Tunisians spend more and produce less.

At the level of the electoral process, Tunisians are not sure for which parties to vote. The partisan scene is crowded: more than 100 parties have been formed and authorized, and it is not easy to differentiate between them ideologically or even in terms of political programs, since not many of them have published their political platforms. According to a poll released by 3C Etudes on July 6, 67% of voters do not know for which list they will vote. The old guard is also back in newly formed political parties, which make Tunisians think that the representatives of the old political system will not disappear after the elections: it also brings back memories of the sham elections that took place under Ben Ali. Parties spend time fighting about cultural questions (religion and tradition vs. secularism) but do not present clear solutions to the disastrous economic situation that is impacting Tunisians in their everyday life. They are currently working on strategic alliances that would allow them to be better represented in the future assembly, but do not seem to be responding to the most pressing questions raised by future voters: what type of constitution will the parties support and how will they improve Tunisians’ daily lives if they govern. Democracy implies more than merely free and transparent elections. It also involves a promise of equal economic and political opportunities from which the majority of Tunisians was barred.  This lack of access to education, the job market, and the political arena was particularly acute for the youth and particularly for women, the segments of the population who are currently showing the least enthusiasm for the registration process. If Tunisians seem to lack enthusiasm for the registration process, it is not because they lack political awareness. They have shown to the world how politically aware they were when they continuously demonstrated after December 17, 2010, leading to the ousting of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. It is not that they do not want democracy: they want it, but they are not convinced that this is it.