Tunisia: A pioneer of Arab democracy

Tunisia is back on its path to democracy, shattering stereotypes and setting an example for others to follow.

After toppling its long-time leader in 2011, Tunisia helped spark mass uprisings across the Arab world [Reuters]

January 14 marked the third anniversary of the first dramatic success of the Arab Spring – the sudden downfall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Three years later, the outcome of the difficult and dangerous test that Arab Spring countries are going through will determine the shape of the region for the coming years, if not decades.

In Egypt, the army toppled the first elected civilian president in the country’s modern history, regaining power behind the veil of a civilian government. In Libya, two years after the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, the country still suffers from the disintegration of state institutions and the rise of violent groups and regional and tribal divisions. Yemen has sunk into a cycle of tribal and sectarian conflicts, the expansion of al-Qaeda and similar groups and a rise in the dangers of division between north and south. Syria has, for its part, fallen into complete chaos between the rule of Bashar al-Assad and armed groups. Against this dark background, Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab revolutions, offers an exception, providing some hope for the people of a region long suffering from deadly despotism and crippling corruption.

Following the first free elections on October 23, 2011, Tunisia embarked on a promising democratic transition under the gaze of the entire world community. These elections were won by the moderate Islamist Ennahdha Party which forged an alliance with two moderate secular parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakattol Party.

Inside Story – Tunisia: A political deadlock?

However, the spectre of political assassinations soon arose, destabilising the political situation and shrouding it in a stifling crisis. Ennahdha absorbed the shock of the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a far-left politician, through a government reshuffle and relinquishing the foreign, interior and justice ministries to independent ministers. However, the second political assassination on July 25, 2013 of Mohamed Brahmi, a few weeks after the military coup in Egypt, and the subsequent deepening of political polarisation between the ruling troika parties and the opposition, coupled with the rising security threats from neighbouring Libya, dragged Tunisia into a new political crisis.

Once again, Ennahdha willingly accepted to relinquish power, despite the majority it still enjoyed in the Assembly – this time in favour of an independent government of technocrats, on the condition that all parties pledge to complete the adoption of the constitution and prepare for the coming elections. After months of uncertainty, Tunisia has resumed its march in the right direction towards completing the transition phase and setting the country on the road to democracy, thus giving great hope in what can be called the emerging Tunisian model.

The principal features of the Tunisian model can be summarised in the concept of partnership in governance between moderate Islamists and secularists. This idea was borne out of the climate of repression we had suffered under Ben Ali.

As exiled politicised youth in Britain, we evaluated, in long heated discussions with the participation of the leader of Ennahdha Party, Rached Ghannouchi, the repression faced by Islamist movement in the early nineties. One of the main conclusions we came to was that one of the principle factors that contributed to establishing Ben Ali’s dictatorship was his success in dividing the Tunisian political scene into Islamists and secularists and his attempts to co-opt the former against the latter, only to go on to target all groups across the spectrum.

This highlighted the importance of cooperation and political alliances between various political and ideological trends. It must be stressed here that among the factors enabling such cooperation was also the fact that the concept of freedom was among the most deeply-established concepts in Ghannouchi’s thought since the 1980s, as he saw religion as synonymous with freedom: Freedom of belief, thought and practice, ideas which matured and became more deeply established through the two decades he spent in London.

The recent resignation of the prime minister and the Ennahdha-led government in favour of an independent technocratic government is contingent on two demands. The first is adopting a new constitution for Tunisia, one that fulfils the aspirations of the revolution for freedom, justice and democracy. Voting on articles of the constitution began on January 4 and should be completed soon, and it is indeed a democratic constitution espousing universal values and freedoms and has been praised by international organisations.

The second is setting a date for the coming elections so as to provide the stability needed to build democratic institutions and rule of law in the face of the danger of terrorism threatening Tunisia, as a result of events in neighbouring Libya and countries to the south. Tunisia possesses a strong and promising foundation for a real democracy in the Arab world, having a relatively high level of education, a significant middle class and a largely homogeneous society devoid of sectarian or ethnic divisions. It also has a neutral military institution with no tradition of interference in politics. Most importantly, it has a moderate democratic Islamist movement alongside moderate secular trends, as opposed to extremist religious and secularist fringes on both sides.

Ennahdha has sacrificed its own interests in power for the sake of Tunisia’s higher interest in establishing a new democracy within a regional context of despotism and return of military rule at the expense of freedom and democracy. If this experiment does succeed, it would represent a final blow to the claims of an “Arab exception”, defying the popular belief among a wide spectrum of politicians, academics and journalists in the US and Europe that the peoples of the Arab world can only be ruled by force.

The success of this emerging democracy is not only in Tunisia’s interest – it is also in Europe’s interest and the West in general, for the existence of a stable democracy in this small Mediterranean country located less than two hundred kilometres from Italy’s shores guarantees the existence of peaceful and secure borders on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the success of this experiment in the Arab region would give some moral and political credibility to the West, which is accused by large portions of the region’s people of supporting despotism and dictators at the expense of the values of democracy and human rights. The birth of a Tunisian model can represent a serious challenge to violent groups as well as to the new generation of army generals aspiring to stop the tide of change and take their people back to the era of repression and fear. Tunisia may indeed give hope in the existence of a bright Arab Spring against those who wish to turn it into a severe and sombre Arab winter.

Rafik Abdessalem is the former Foreign Minister of Tunisia. He is responsible for International Affairs in Ennahdha Party, founder of the Maghreb Centre for Research and Translation and former visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.