The first televised Presidential debate in the Arab World: A historic moment

14 November 2019 1405 Views



This paper analyses the first presidential debate in Arab political history, the context which it took place and the performance of contenders during the Tunisian televised debates. These debates are an evidence of how democracy has maintained its course in the country. Nevertheless, one should be aware of the potential pitfalls that still face the transition, which should not be played down. It also seeks to question the value of the presidential debates and whether they have a decisive role in orienting people's electoral choices. Unlike previous elections, the present race marks a shift from door-to- door communication to professional campaigns run by experts in public relations. Do these new presidential debates reinforce the pre-existing image of candidates? Do they affect voting behavior? Do voters care about the candidates' performance, dress and physical appearance?

Etymology of the word

The word ‘debate’ dates back to the 14th century. According the Etymology Online Dictionary, the word means a “quarrel, dispute, or disagreement”. The term derives from the old French debat from debatre which means “contention by argument”. Political scientists are divided over the issue of political debates and their significance.

Historical Context

During political campaigns, many methods have been adopted to grab the attention of the public. Face-to-face communication, door-to-door campaigns and public gatherings are among the most common tools used. Politicians have capitalized on the technological revolution to communicate their ideas through radio, TV and social media. This paper focuses on the television broadcasting of presidential elections kicked off on September 7, 2019. It is worth making an analogy here with Anglo Saxon presidential debates, given that the first televised presidential debate took place in 1960 in the US between Kennedy and Nixon. The debate was significant since Nixon won the radio debate, while Kennedy won the televised one, demonstrating the difference that the medium makes to the message. Many studies have sought to show how the power of image was decisive in Kennedy's electoral success.

In Tunisia, the first televised presidential contest will usher in a new phase of the democratic transition. Unlike previous elections, the present race marks a shift from door-to-door communication to professional campaigns run by experts in public relations. Politicians address their voters directly through television to build trust and credibility. The debate, entitled The Road to Carthage: Tunisia Makes its Choice, shows that campaigns have become more ‘professional’. However, I would argue that voters also want to see clear programs and not just personality. Politicians address their voters directly through television to build trust and credibility.

Candidate profiles

A total of 26 candidates are contesting the presidential race, and were divided into three groups for the televised debates. This paper focuses on the first group whose debate took place on September 7, 2019 on prime time television . It consisted of nine candidates including independent activists like Omar Mansour, a judge and Neji Jelloul, a university professor. The candidates belong to different schools of thought: Islamist, Abdel Fatteh Mourou; Left-wing activists, Abid Briki and Neji Jelloul; Doustourians like Abir Moussa who is a candidate for the Free Destourian Party, and independent activist, Omar Mansour.

Dress and personality

The candidates appeared to be very cautious and self-conscious during the debate as body language, facial expressions, gestures and posture matter greatly during the contest. In this paper, the focus will be on the two major candidates: Mourou and Marzouki.

The majority of the candidates wore suits with red or blue ties. Mourou a lawyer and a co-founder of the Ettijah Islami wore traditional Tunisian dress or Jebba, a cotton fabric, and a white Chechia, a flat-surfaced traditional hat. While the younger generation considers Jebba and Chechia as ‘old-fashioned’ and potentially ‘backward’, Mourou was sending coded messages to the public that he is a protector of Tunisia’s rich cultural heritage: customs, traditions, and identity. He brands himself as the candidate of the Baldia, the original inhabitants of the Medina of Tunis. The candidate seeks to appeal to the conservative community in Tunisian society. He usually identifies himself with Ulama Zaituna (Zaituna religious scholars), and moderate Maliki scholars, like Mohammed Tahar Ben Achour and Abdel Aziz Thaalbi. He is portrayed as a moderate candidate belonging to the ‘doves’ camp in Ennahdha Party. He masters foreign languages including German. He is also branded as a ‘reformer’ within the Party and advocates ideas of democratic Islam.

Marzouki did not wear a tie during the televised debate, and he is known for refusing to do so. During his presidency (2011-2014), he was criticized for not dressing ‘properly’, an indication that Tunisians have gotten used to seeing their leaders wearing formal western-style suits. He wore a traditional Tunisian burnous on occasions during his presidency, which was also scorned in the media. His opponents attempted to ridicule him because he refused to accommodate with the remnants of the former regime or ‘fouloul’. As a human rights activist under Ben Ali, he resisted what he calls the ‘deep state’s’ attempts to infiltrate state institutions and did not shy away from attacking the media for being controlled by old regime interests.

Responses to Questions

A thorough examination of the debate unveils a significant resemblance between the programs of the candidates. For example, most candidates said they were committed to restoring what they call haybet dawla (the authority of the state) and combatting terrorism. Before the revolution, the regime used the terrorism card to crack down on civil liberties, yet this narrative is being brought back, particularly in reaction to terrorist attacks since 2015. Candidates promised to increase public expenditure in defence and funding for the Ministry of Interior. However, they did not provide a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism. Neither did they propose any social or economic strategy to eradicate poverty and reduce inequalities between the Sahel and interior regions, which is a major source of exclusion and tensions .

Both Mourou and Marzouki pledged to expand trade and industry with Africa and promised to consolidate relations with Algeria and Libya. Again the foreign policy outlook of these candidates, and all candidates in fact, was very similar.

Shortage of high calibre candidates

To guarantee the success of democracy-building and maintaining stability, Tunisia is desperately in need of a charismatic, moderate and principled leader committed to democracy. Heavy-weight candidates like Ahmed Mestiri, Foued Slama, and Kamel Merjen did not submit their candidacies. The former President, Marzouki, is certainly very well-known and has support among those who want a tougher approach to fulfilling the demands of the revolution and dealing with the old regime. However, he was portrayed as a ‘threat’ to National Security during his term, with the opposition claiming that Tunisia was under the sway of the Turkish and Qatari ‘bloc’. His supporters denied those allegations and argued that they were unfounded. However, these claims may resurge during the campaign and affect Marzouki’s changes.

Women candidates

Unlike the legislative and municipal elections where the Higher Authority for Independent Elections introduced the principle of gender parity and alternation, which enabled women to constitute almost 50% of local government councils in 2018, their representation in leading positions and in decision-making is still disappointing. There are only two women presidential candidates. Salma Elloumi, a female candidate belonging to a well-off family, and Abir Moussa, the lawyer of the former ruling RCD party. Working-class women and women from the interior regions are not represented in the race. Even those who brand themselves as progressive forces have not nominated a female candidate. This is proof that there is no genuine commitment to involving women at the highest levels of decision-making, and that women continue to face an uphill struggle to claim their places at the top of political parties.

Physical appearance

Although most candidates appeared calm, relaxed and confident, they usually spoke too fast and gave the impression that they did not master the issues being discussed. They also used modern standard Arabic and their formal way of speaking reinforced the impression that politicians are distant and arrogant. The use of dilalect or darja may have been more successful in engaging ordinary people. Moreover, the absence of laughter or humor during the first debate indicates that the candidates lack confidence and charisma or the ability to engage ordinary voters and speak on their level.


Overall, Tunisia’s first televised presidential debates are a major achievement, but much remains to be done to make them a real tool for guiding people’s electoral choices. Furthermore, the contents show that the candidates have yet to formulate distinct programs that set them apart and enable voters to choose a particular political ‘offer’. While it is positive that campaigns are becoming more professional and are engaging the public in different ways, a focus on image and method must not be at the expense of content.


Hatem Sebei

New comment