Sept. 13 (UPI) -- As they go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, Tunisians will be choosing between conventional politicians or populist candidates with no political experience.
The draw of the populist narrative could be a harbinger of the protest vote and signal the next phase of Tunisia's rocky transition to democracy. For the United States, supporting the process rather than any particular political figure is the best strategy.
This election, triggered by the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in late July, has exposed pervasive disillusionment with political elites since the 2011 uprising. Eight successive governments have not been able to address the lack of jobs, the rise of prices and crime.
This perceived ineptitude has fueled an anti-establishment trend. Accusations of corruption against the new political class are rising, a poignant sign that the "Arab spring" and the spontaneous movement that toppled the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in 2011 did not totally change the political culture of the country.
Many of the populist candidates are conservatives and ultraconservatives whose Islamist and pan-Arabic narratives are tinged with utter suspicion of the West. They pledge to roll back some of the incremental progress on gender equality, gay rights and other civil liberties. Young Tunisians are still gravitating toward migration -- often illegal -- or radicalization. Tunisia has the paradoxical distinction of being both the best legacy of the "Arab spring" and one of the top providers of recruits to the Islamic State.
Populist candidates are calling for reviews of all previous agreements with European states, reflecting an a never so pronounced xenophobia about perceived Western exploitation and a worrisome shift from Tunisia's once vaunted cosmopolitanism. Ironically, some candidates, such as Lotfi Mraihi, are impressed by aspects of the new toxic nationalism of Europe's right wing.
At least one candidate, Abir Moussi, seems to be offering anxious voters a return to the past and the strong state role of Tunisia's first decades of independence under President Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, besides rejecting the inclusion of Islamists in the country's politics. While progressive in some ways, the "Destourian" politics of the past had eventually evolved into one-party rule. While stressing that "freedoms are guaranteed," Moussi has yet to offer voters a critical assessment of past policies.
Adding to the unpredictability of the vote is the "Karoui factor." Although opinion polls are banned during the election campaign, TV magnate Nabil Karoui was presumed to be the front-runner before the start of the campaign. If his favorability ratings have remained unchanged, his candidacy could complicate the election calculus. Nicknamed "Tunisia's Berlusconi," Karoui is in jail, but that may add to his draw.
For Tunisia's Western partners and friends, including the United States, the post-election situation may shake the complacency of recent years. U.S. policy has focused almost entirely on private sector development, as U.S. Ambassador to Tunis Donald Blome noted this month, celebrating the expanding market for Tunisian dates, olive oil and pottery in the United States.
Tunisia's friends have been mostly hands-off with respect to political reforms, presumably to demonstrate respect for Tunisia's relative maturity in managing its political affairs. Tunisia's civil society organizations won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for their remarkable role in nudging politicians to compromise and to form an all-parties government after the fall of the Ben Ali rule.
Generally, democracy promotion in the Middle East region has required more discretion than in the past, as many Arab countries are not receptive to such foreign assistance. Tunisia is an exception, but U.S. resources for such programs are quite modest.
However, the ambassador also aptly acknowledged that "economic prosperity and democratic development require security for Tunisians." Preventing extremism at home and helping the Tunisians cope with terrorist threats from abroad are equally important pillars of American engagement.
Unless Tunisian voters opt for the more conventional candidates, the government may need more help from outside in managing the security situation. Given instability in Libya and the growing uncertainties of Algeria's political transition, Tunisia's vulnerability has regional security consequence.
The United States will need to pay more attention to the country and the prospect of an inexperienced populist at the helm unraveling Tunisia's traditional alliances and making the task of the country's friends more critical.
Oussama Romdhani is editor of the Arab Weekly. Ellen Laipson directs the international security program at George Mason University and served in the U.S. government on Middle East affairs for 25 years.