Perhaps it is premature to talk about the success of Tunisia’s democratic experiment in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The jury is still out following the announcement of the results of the first truly democratic presidential elections in Tunisia which has generally been accepted as fair and sound.
The fairness of the result has been acknowledged by no less than out-going interim president Moncef Marzouki, when he both called on his disappointed supporters to accept the democratic choice of the voters and congratulated his victorious opponent Mohammad Beji Caid Essebsi.
Amid this mood of goodwill Tunisia is taking its first steps on a long path, however we must also keep some interesting facts in mind. Foremost among which is that Tunisia, the pioneer of change in the “Arab Spring”, entered its latest elections in a state of relative stability and broad national consensus. Some may belittle the role of the forces of civil society in achieving this by pointing to the fact that Tunisia has learnt a lot from the tragedies that other countries suffered during this period of momentous change since early 2011. This may be true, but it is also true that the strength of Tunisia’s civil society has been proven by its ability to survive the eras of Habib Bourguiba and later Gen. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In Tunisia, state and civil institutions of all types have managed to both survive and maintain their balance and pragmatism.
The military, to begin with, remained a proper state institution, never allowing their militarism to turn them into a sectarian “militia” that kills its own people, razes its cities and villages to the ground and destroys the fabric of its own society as what is still happening in Syria.
Another fact is that Tunisia’s Islamists — namely the Ennahda movement — unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, were not hasty in seeking to consolidate power in their hands. Thus, they avoided committing the mistake committed by former Egyptian President Dr. Mohammad Mursi, whose dash for “consolidation” allowed a wide spectrum of diverse opponents to re-group and find a common cause to depose him.
Today the Tunisian people seem to have found a common interest in stability, maintenance and protection of their institutionsEyad Abu Shakra
A third fact is that Tunisia’s left-wing never forgot its priorities, remaining close to the pulse of the people and committed to fighting for their needs, unlike several childish and opportunist leftist groups in countries like Iraq and Lebanon which entered alien tactical alliances that rendered them irrelevant to their support base.
Last but not least, Tunisia has remained relatively immune against the ills of sectarianism, tribalism and regionalism, which are currently threatening to tear Yemen and Libya apart.
Secularism without the ‘police state’
Given the above, and while it is still too early to say that Tunisia has succeeded while others have faltered, it is clear that the country possesses sufficient infrastructure, institutions and a well-organized civil society that are aware of where their interests lie and what threats may befall their country. Intellectuals, trade unionists, state institutions including the military, as well as the intelligentsia, were all keen since early 2011 to stay away from the precipice by ruling through broad coalitions as no single group proved able to muster an outright majority. Such coalitions were thus the right path in the face of the formidable and acute challenges ahead.
Mr. Essebsi’s party Nidaa’ Tounes has been accused by its political opponents of being a re-branding of the pre-2011 regime, which may be partially true. The reality, however, is that it is much more than that. It is a broad-based political gathering which has brought the urban bourgeoisie in the country’s largest cities—especially, in the north—together with centrist liberals and secularists, disassociating itself from the legacy of corruption, nepotism and other brazen “police state” practices.
Furthermore, this party has proven to be attractive to many who wanted secularism without the “police state” aspect, and Islam as a tolerant broad identity but not an incubator to extremists, terrorists and assassins.
The assassination of left-wing activists Mohammed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, the military confrontations in Jebel Sha’anbi near Algeria’s borders, the worrying high percentage of Tunisians now fighting under the banners of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the dangerously chaotic situation in Libya may have convinced many Tunisians not to take any undue risks. Many worried about self-declared “Islamic” terrorists decided not to gamble even on moderate and responsible “stately” Islamists, which would explain the drop in Ennahda’s ballot count in the latest parliamentary elections, securing it second place in comparison to its victory in the first elections held after 2011.
As for Ennahda itself, it has to be said that the movement has shown political maturity, and demonstrated—whether willingly or unwillingly—that it respects its environment and society. From the very beginning Ennahda was not in a hurry to take over the state, choosing instead to reassure the public about its belief in the freedoms and democratic slogans it utilized during its days in opposition. In fact, Ennahda—whether via its open or clandestine activities, inside Tunisia or in exile—has been aware that no single Tunisian party can excessively promote its “Islamist” credentials in a country where Muslims—particularly Sunnis—make up more than 98 percent of the population.
Add to the above the fact that Tunisia’s geographical location—very close to Europe—and its profound cultural, economic and social interaction with the continent have given the “Tunisian character”, whether Islamist or secular, a “Mediterranean” dimension that is at home with dialogue, diversity and flexibility in dealing with challenges. This “character” has accepted the social and organizational freedoms as welcome achievements from the early days of the Independence period, in spite, of some mistakes and abuse; and hence, is a guarantor of peaceful political change.
Today the Tunisian people seem to have found a common interest in stability, maintenance and protection of institutions, allowing the democratic process to take root. Tunisians are now confident enough that even if they make the wrong choice at the ballot box, or show too much patience with political malpractice, they are quite capable of effecting the required change when the time is right, in precisely the same manner that we saw in December 2010 and January 2011.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Dec. 27, 2014.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.