Essebsi avoids debate with incumbent Marzouki, attacks him as 'extremist'
Tunisia will hold its first ever run-off vote for president this Sunday, with incumbent Moncef Marzouki facing off against 88-year old veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi.
About 5.3 million Tunisians are being called to the ballot boxes to choose between the two, the first time a head of state has been freely elected since independence from France in 1956.
The first round of voting took place on 23 November and saw Essebsi, who leads the Nidaa Tounes party, take 39 percent of the vote.
Marzouki, who took the post in February 2012, took 33 percent.
Nidaa Tounes won parliamentary elections in October by a clear margin.
Though the civil nature of the political process has stood in stark contrast to recent presidential elections in Egypt and Syria – both of which stood accused of vote-rigging and intimidation of voters – the campaign trail has still seen bad will between the two camps.
Essebsi has refused to take part in debates with Marzouki, labelling him an “extremist” and accusing him of being in the pocket of the Ennahda party, Tunisia’s second party who declined to put forward a candidate for the presidential election.
Marzouki has, conversely, accused Essebsi, who served in former dictator Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali's government, of wanting to restore autocratic rule in the country.
Ennahda, the most popular party in Tunisia’s first post-2011 parliamentary elections, have refused to back a candidate in the presidential elections.
Among other proposals, Essebsi has spoken of the need to build closer links with the country’s neighbours.
He said should he take power he would "restore diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries – especially Egypt and Syria – without interfering in their internal affairs".
"We're adamant here in Tunisia on maintaining the sovereignty of our country, which is why we refuse to interfere in the affairs of other countries," Essebsi said at a rally on Tuesday.
His comments come in contrast to calls by Marzouki to release Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi from jail, a move condemned by the Egyptian government as "interference in Egypt's internal affairs".
An International Crisis Group report released on Friday called for reconciliation between the two political camps, regardless of the outcome of the election.
"The standoff between incumbent President Moncef Marzouki and former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for 21 December 2014, has revealed fault lines in Tunisian society that political elites believed they had bridged with their sense of consensus and compromise," it reads.
"The electoral map emerging from the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election shows a country divided between a north that is largely pro-Essebsi and his party Nidaa Tounes, and a south that is in majority pro-Marzouki and favourable to the Islamist party Ennahda. In order to prevent mutual fears from escalating into violent confrontations, the winner of this first free and competitive presidential poll will have to begin by acknowledging the fears of the loser’s electorate."
In spite of the hype around the elections, many young Tunisians have been sceptical as to whether they will yield any real change in their standard of living.
"I've never elected anyone in my life, and I won't participate in the upcoming elections either," Saber, a 24-year-old hairdresser who only gave his first name, told the Anadolu Agency (AA).
"After a lot of thinking, I've come to the conclusion that there is no point in participating in the polls, as politicians are just using us to achieve their personal goals. We don't trust them; that's why many of us [young people] decided not to vote," he said.
Another youth, Mohamed, said he had "never been able to stay employed for more than a week,” while another said that he was boycotting "because they haven't found a trustworthy candidate or a good government".
"I wanted to participate in the parliamentary elections [at the end of October], but none of the parties and candidates succeeded in convincing me," Nidal said.
"It's even worse with the presidential elections. My life is fully removed from the country's political reality. Politicians are useless. While they play, we're stuck in the gutter."
Fewer than 20 percent of young people under 30 years old in Tunisia cast their vote in the first round of the presidential elections, official statistics said.
Unemployment in Tunisia has hovered around the 15 percent mark since the revolution, with young people making up to three-quarters of that figure.
Islamic State threat
The run-up to the vote has been marred by the release of a video by people claiming to be with the Islamic State (IS) who threatened the killings of police and security forces.
Islamic State fighters claimed responsibility on Thursday for the murder of two secular Tunisian politicians in 2013 that plunged the country into crisis, warning of more killings just days before a presidential run-off election.
"Yes, tyrants, we're the ones who killed Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi," Abou Mouqatel, a dual French national wanted for their murders, said in a video released on the Internet.
Belaid was assassinated in front of his home on 6 February, while Brahmi was killed a few months later on 25 July. Their murders plummeted Tunisia into a political crisis that eventually forced Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, the secretary-general of the Ennahda party, to resign. Ennahda is often seen as Tunisia's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, although the party was born out of very specific local circumstances.
"We are going to come back and kill several of you. You will not have a quiet life until Tunisia implements Islamic law," added the militant, whose real name is Boubakr al-Hakim.
Mohamed Ali Aroui, Interior ministry spokesman, dismissed the threat. "Tunisians are stronger than these terrorists," he said. "They mean nothing to us."