Moez Joudi, left, a co-founder of Al Watan party, attends a training session for members at the party headquarters in Tunis. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National
TUNIS // In 1989, when Issam Belhaj turned 20 – then the age of suffrage in Tunisia – he marched down to his local council office in the Tunisian capital to collect his voter registration card. And was refused.
«Who are you, anyway?» a municipality official said.
«A Tunisian citizen,» said Mr Belhaj.
The official laughed and Mr Belhaj left empty-handed.
For Mr Belhaj, the word «citizen» is not a joke. Two decades after he had been arbitrarily denied the right to vote, he is planning to run for a seat in the national assembly as an independent alongside dozens of new political parties in Tunisia’s first free elections.
While the glut of new parties has fuelled dispute over the election date and controversy over ex-members of Tunisia’s former ruling party, it is also seen as a sign of a democratic awakening.
That awakening began in January when protests toppled Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. An interim government is tasked with carrying out elections for a national assembly to draft a constitution.
«The vast array of parties shows the post-revolution exuberance at being able to express whatever’s on your mind,» said a western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For weeks, those parties engaged in a tug-of-war over an election date initially set for July but postponed last month to October 23.
Larger parties and the government had argued in favour of July, warning that delay could breed instability. The electoral commission has proposed October, citing operational difficulties, while smaller parties said they would need more time to present themselves to voters.
Mr Belhaj, a lawyer specialising in investment law, had hoped for quick elections to reassure foreign investors of stability – despite the advantage he said that would give established parties.
«Running as an independent lets you create your own image,» he said. «But the parties are stronger in terms of organisation and funding.»
For decades that trade-off was moot, as presidents Habib Bourguiba and Mr Ben Ali dominated politics from atop the Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD). Opposition parties had found themselves harassed or banned outright.
For Mr Belhaj, revolution was a cue to enter politics.
«Simply being alive should engage us in political life,» he said.
A secularist, he also wants the new constitution to set the framework for a liberal economy and a generous social-safety net, with state aid for the poorest and more support for microcredit programmes.
While major parties span the political spectrum, from the leftist Attajdeed to the Islamist Nahda, «I don’t see myself in any of them», Mr Belhaj said.
He is banking on the hope that voters in Sidi el Bechir, the working-class quarter of Tunis where he grew up and plans to run, share his ambivalence.
According to a poll conducted in April by the Institut de Sondage et de Traitement de l’Information Statistique, a private Tunisian research centre, over half of those polled said that no political party appealed to them.
Meanwhile, in new offices across Tunis from Sidi el Bechir, the Al Watan party is wrestling with a more controversial aspect of Tunisia’s political opening.
Headed by Ahmed Friaa and Mohamed Jegham, who were once cabinet ministers under Mr Ben Ali, Al Watan is among several new parties launched by formers members of the RCD.
That pedigree has brought undeserved stigma, according to Moez Joudi, a co-founder of Al Watan and member of its political bureau.
«We have many members – myself among them – who have never belonged to the RCD,» he said. «Mr Jegham and Mr Friaa left the RCD years ago.»
Mr Joudi said both men have clean records and opposed the corruption of Mr Ben Ali’s regime. But Al Watan faces tough criticism.
Protesters demanding that former RCD members be expunged from politics have forced several cabinet reshuffles and prompted the government to dissolve the party.
The government has also barred former senior RCD members from political posts for the next 10 years, a decision that Mr Joudi said should have been left to courts.
Mr Joudi, 35, teaches corporate governance at Paris’s Sorbonne University and the Institut de Hauts Études de Tunis, and runs a private management school in the Tunisian capital.
«I knew Mr Friaa and Mr Jegham because my father had worked with them in the administration,» he said. «With the revolution, I felt that young Tunisians like me, who have acquired skills working abroad, had a role to play.»
Al Watan’s programme is secularist and politically centrist, Mr Joudi said, promoting stronger local government and industries, and locally elected regional governors.
Funded by donations – and, according to Mr Joudi, partly by founding members including himself – the party has set up offices across the country, a website and Facebook pages for local chapters.
Every week it holds a public meeting in a different city and has gained around 10,000 members so far, Mr Joudi said.
«Our more experienced members will be training the younger generation,» he said. «This country needs all its people.»
For Mr Belhaj, such turnover illustrates growing political consciousness in a society long numbed by authoritarian rule.
«For years, we abandoned politics,» he said. «That weighed on our shoulders. And that’s why today we’re no longer running away.»