Tunisia: The Arab Spring’s only good-news story

Can the place where the revolution began make democracy work amid the chaos of the Middle East?

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Given the recent events in the Middle East, it’s hard to imagine anything fruitful blooming from the Arab Spring. Hopes ran high in 2011 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street seller, burdened by debt and hounded by corrupt officials, set himself on fire and, in the process, ignited the latent desire of young Arabs for change. Since then, chaos has unfolded: Radicals have risen in Syria, and military despots in Egypt.

But, later this month, Tunisians will go to the polls for the third time in three years, this time, to vote for a new president. It may not be closely watched by outsiders, but it will represent a flicker of hope that the Arab Spring is alive. There have been efforts to derail it. This week, al-Qaeda-linked militants sheltering in neighbouring Algeria attacked a busload of Tunisian soldiers in the country’s mountainous northwest—the latest in a flurry of extremist attacks on Tunisia’s nascent democracy. But if the past few weeks are any indication, the process should survive.

On Oct. 26, Tunisia held its second legislative elections in three years. Unlike elections in other Arab countries—Iraq, for instance—Tunisia’s was not marred by sectarian divides; nor, like Egypt, did it deepen the schism between secularists and Islamists. In what was a first in the Arab world after the Arab Spring, a faith-based party, Ennahda, politely handed power to its secular opponent, Nidaa Tounes. The secularists—a coalition of loyalists to ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, liberals, and leftists—responded in kind. “We in Nidaa Tounes believe that the Ennahda movement has become a reality in the Tunisian political landscape,” a senior Nidaa Tounes member told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, we are meant to coexist.”

It was a novel moment in the brief history of the Arab Spring, marred as it has been by democratic movements being sidelined by Islamists and dictators. Egypt’s liberals overthrew a deeply entrenched autocratic regime, only to watch as their nation was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of tyranny. The pendulum then reversed course, as secularists overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in a military coup. In other parts of the Middle East, like Syria, uprisings against dictatorial regimes have faltered in the face of a fractured opposition.

So how has Tunisia managed to keep its democratic transition on track? Tunisians have faced many of the same challenges as their neighbours, but have managed to work through them peacefully. Like Egypt, the first democratic elections saw Islamists win a plurality, but, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda did not attempt to position Islamists as the dominant force in Tunisian politics. Instead, it formed a coalition with secular parties.

Over the two years the party spent in power, Ennahda, like the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to pull Tunisia out of a worsening economic crisis. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, however, Ennahda did not try to excuse its radical base. It adopted a confrontational stance toward rising jihadist extremism, banning groups that refused to accept a path of dialogue and moderation. “Egypt was a kind of warning message for Tunisians,” says Issandr al Amrani, North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “Both the secularists and the Islamists saw the collapse of Egyptian democracy as antithetical to the sacrifices they had made for Tunisia.”

Indeed, an economic crisis and rising extremism nearly collapsed Tunisia’s democratic project in 2013, but, rather than struggle against a rising tide of popular discontent, Ennahda agreed to step down, transferring power to a technocratic government that would oversee the country until the October elections. The outcome of those elections has reinvigorated the debate over whether or not Islamism and democracy can coexist. Many argue that the Tunisian example proves Islamists can be responsive to the will of the people and engage in the politics of co-operation.

On the other side of the ideological aisle, Nidaa Tounes has offered a political space for members of the regime toppled during the revolution. Some observers have argued that Iraq could have avoided the chaos it now faces, if, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Baathist supporters of the regime were allowed to reinvent themselves as democrats and join the political process, rather than face persecution and be driven to Islamic State.

But, despite significant progress, the path forward is fraught with danger. Tunisia’s political and economic fragility make it a target for meddling by outside powers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which feel threatened by their own pro-democracy movements, have an interest in making sure political Islam does not succeed in a democratic environment. They could use their deep coffers to seek to undermine the democratization of Islamism. Radicalism is also on the rise in Tunisia. It is estimated that Tunisians make up the largest number of foreign fighters who have joined Islamic State. A fear of terrorism could yet be harnessed to roll back Tunisia’s democratic advances in the name of national security.

Will Tunisia’s leaders resist the urge? “The accepted wisdom is that Islamists are fated to win elections, and then weight the system in their favour,” Amrani says. “But the Tunisian experience has proven that notion false.” Tunisians launched the Arab Spring and, while it has not been pretty, they may well also be the ones who actually make it work.

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