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TV debates: Here’s one region hungry for this democratic staple

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The 2011 Arab Spring’s sole success story, Tunisia holds its second-ever free presidential elections Sept. 15. But the most remarkable feature of the voters’ two-week crash course on the many candidates has been three nights of televised debates. For the first time in the Arab world, leading candidates took to a stage to debate policy and defend their track records. Across the region, the broadcasts are shattering taboos over challenging authority and raising expectations Arab citizens have of their leaders.

“This is a moment of pride for us Tunisians – a chance to remember why our revolution and struggle was all worth it,” says Walid Ben Mohammed, a Tunis taxi driver. “Rather than our next head of our state acting like they are the boss of us, he or she has to plead with us as if they are applying for a job.”

Candidates even used some of their platform to promote Tunisia’s democracy to help other Arab states embarking on a democratic transition.

“In Algeria and Sudan people are looking to us as a model and will demand presidential candidates articulate their programs on national television,” says Tarek Tahlawi, a Tunisian political analyst.

TUNIS, Tunisia

Two-dozen presidential candidates vying over multiple nights to make their case to the people via television …

While political debates have become fatiguingly familiar for Americans, in Tunisia they have been something else entirely – historic.

For the first time in the Arab world, leading presidential candidates took to a stage this week to debate policy and defend their track records. The debates in Tunisia’s capital on three consecutive nights ending Sept. 9 were broadcast across the region – shattering taboos over challenging authority and raising the expectations Arab citizens have of their leaders.

Tunisia, the Arab world’s purest democracy and the Arab Spring’s sole lasting success story, is holding its second-ever free presidential elections Sept. 15.

Due to the hybrid nature of the Tunisian political system of a president and a prime minister, the subjects of the debates were limited to the specific realms of the president: national security, foreign policy, and the military.

But even Western viewers would have found many familiar subjects: climate change, the death penalty, and how to best combat terrorism.

Outgoing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed touted his “tough-on-terror” credentials by listing the terrorist cells that were busted under his premiership, while candidates such as former caretaker president and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki promised to “make the economy work” for citizens.

Other subjects were unique to the Arab world: how to help mediate peace in neighboring Libya, mending ties with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Palestinian cause, and the explosive question of normalizing ties with Israel.

Others were national hot-button issues unique to Tunisia. Should Tunisia ban the full-face niqab veil for security reasons? What are candidates’ solutions to prevent Tunisians from trying to migrate to Europe illegally and drowning off its coasts?

Making history

The debates were the result of five years of campaigning by the Munathara Initiative, a Tunisia-based organization that holds politically themed debates across the Arab world. The debates were the most extensive and inclusive ever between Arab political candidates.

The only precedent in the region was in 2012, when a private television channel held a debate between two of the nine candidates for Egypt’s presidency; but the final two choices on the ballot, including the eventual president, Mohammed Morsi, were not involved or held to scrutiny.

“We wanted these debates to inspire other Arabs with what is possible, and Tunisia again is showing the region what is possible once more,” says Belabbes Benkredda, founder and CEO of Munathara, which is Arabic for debate.

“This is the antithesis of the fragmentation we have witnessed in our public discourse across the world. … By having all these broadcasters come together to air these debates, everyone is taking part in a shared reality.”

Alternative facts have been an issue in a young democracy such as Tunisia, where many media outlets are tied to political parties. Gulf Arab countries and Turkey also have used their regional media networks to support rival Tunisian parties and politicians, creating local and regional echo chambers.

Munathara, working with Tunisia’s Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE) and the country’s equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, devised a debate format based on Colombian and Mexican models in which candidates are given 90 seconds to respond to specific questions from moderators.

Courtesy of Munathara Initiative

Candidates take the podium in the first of three nights of historic presidential debates in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sept. 7, 2019.

As part of a compromise with the 11 Tunisian channels, organizers agreed to make the debates less confrontational, with minimal interaction among the candidates themselves – the lone criticism by the Tunisian media.

Yet, according to Tunisians themselves, if the debates lacked in drama or verbal fisticuffs, they made up for it simply by having leaders detail their policies and defend themselves within 90 seconds, or face being cut off by the journalist moderators.

“This is a moment of pride for us Tunisians – a chance to remember why our revolution and struggle was all worth it,” says Walid Ben Mohammed, a Tunis taxi driver. “Rather than our next head of our state acting like they are the boss of us, he or she has to plead with us as if they are applying for a job.”

The format made the Arab world’s first presidential debates more policy-focused than personality-driven.

Rather than “he said, she said” grandstanding or crowd-pleasing slogans, candidates were forced to quickly delve into the details – or lack thereof – of their plans for national security, intelligence services, protecting the borders, diplomacy, and Tunisian foreign policy toward Europe and Africa.

Accountability

To reinforce accountability for the country’s next leader, the debates included a “99 days” section, in which the candidates were given 99 seconds to articulate their pledges for their first 99 days in office.

Moderators later asked for a show of hands from the candidates to pledge to come back on national television for their 100th day in office to review their 99-day promises and defend whether or not they have achieved them.

In the debates, 99-day promises have included “reviewing trade agreements” and “making France apologize for its decades of colonization of Tunisia.”

“Everyone is getting similar questions, no one is getting preferable treatment,” says Mounira Jaylani, a mother of four from Hay Tadhamin, a marginalized neighborhood in the capital. “These debates prove that these candidates have to earn our trust and answer to us as president, not only answer to their parties.”

In addition to rekindling faith in a beleaguered democratic process, the debates were hailed as a “positive success” in Arab and Tunisian media, as well as fodder for radio talk shows.

Tunisian daily newspaper Al Chourouk gave a rundown of each candidate’s performance, offering unusually blunt critiques and criticisms of a potential soon-to-be Arab head of state.

The newspaper noted that although Islamist Ennahda candidate Abdul Fateh al Mouro “emphasized his oratory skills” in the debates, “he seemed to try to be appealing to viewers simply through his eloquence rather than making an actual argument.”

Abeer Mousa, an apologist for dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, “looked like she was following a script and her usual fire was absent”; former Prime Minister Mahdi Jumaa seemed to be “too low-energy for a candidate trying to convince voters”; while independent Amr Mansour was “hopeless, providing incomplete and unconvincing answers and appeared to be unprepared.”

Regional reach

In addition to running on 11 local private and public channels, the Tunisian debates were carried live by satellite networks from Libya, Iraq, and Algeria – as well as by Al Jazeera Live, which beams for free into the homes of 100 million Arab viewers across the region.

The historic nature of the debates was not lost on members of the Arab media, who filled Tunisian state Al Wataniya studios on Saturday during technical setup, literally filming the electric cables being connected for the first Arab presidential debates.

This is particularly true for neighboring Algeria, embroiled in a contentious political transition after protesters forced out longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April; and for Sudan, where civilians and the military have entered a democratic transition after a monthslong showdown that saw hundreds killed.

Candidates even used some of their platform to promote Tunisia’s democratic model as a tool to help other Arab states embarking on a democratic transition.

“In Algeria and Sudan people are looking to us as a model and will demand presidential candidates articulate their programs on national television,” says Tarek Tahlawi, a Tunisian political analyst who served as a debates adviser to one of the candidates.

“Because in Tunisia we really do not know who will be our president, and it is a position candidates have to earn.”



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