Is Tunisia a role model for the Arab world?

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News
2 December 2014

When Tunisians vote in their presidential run-off election later this month, it will be the fourth time they have been to the polls in as many years.

Tunisia not only started the Arab Spring, it is now leading the way in terms of democratic development in the Middle East and North Africa.

The current frontrunner for the presidency, 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, has campaigned on two themes – experience and “anything but the Islamists”.

His party, Nidaa Tounes, has attracted the backing of many who formerly supported the man brought down in 2011, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

While Mr Essebsi is the establishment candidate his opponent, Moncef Marzouki, is a former dissident and leftist who says his top priority is to safeguard the revolution.

Coming from the conservative and poorer South, he tends to attract the religious vote.

Tunisia can confidently claim to have handled the aftershocks of the Arab Spring better than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa”

In the first round, Mr Essebsi was supported by 39% of voters and the incumbent, Mr Marzouki, 33%.

The result of the second round is genuinely uncertain.

Whatever the outcome, Tunisia can confidently claim to have handled the aftershocks of the Arab Spring better than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa.

After protesters took to the streets of Syria, Yemen and Libya the result was chaos and civil war.

In Egypt the current military-backed government is even more authoritarian than that of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Elsewhere the Arab Spring never got started. Bahrain’s royals, for example, resisted demands for change on the grounds that the country was not ready for democracy.

There are various reasons for Tunisia’s happier situation.

Minority of hardliners

Unlike many of its Middle Eastern counterparts, Tunisia’s army traditionally sticks out of politics.

The country’s religious demographics also help. Whilst hard-line Salafist elements exist, they are small in number.

The country is overwhelmingly Sunni, thereby avoiding destabilising sectarian splits.

And the close cultural affinity between many Tunisians – especially those living near the coast – and France means the country tends to look west not east for political inspiration.

But Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the moderate Islamist Ennadha party, should also take some of the credit.

When Ennadha won the post-Arab Spring 2011 elections, some Tunisians feared it would enforce Islamic government.

Many did not trust the assurances of Ennadha’s spiritual leader, Rachid Gannouchi, that while he wanted an Islamic political system, he would only introduce it if he could persuade Tunisians of its benefits.

The sceptics have been proven wrong. With some wobbles along the way, Ennadha stuck to its word.

Despite its 2011 victory, it handed over power to a technocratic, interim government to oversee the parliamentary and presidential elections. And it made compromises.

While the constitutions of many Muslim-majority countries cite the Koran as the ultimate source of law, Ennadha accepted something very different.

Article Three of the new constitution states that: “The people possess sovereignty and are the source of all powers.”

Ennadha’s flexibility is to some extent self-interested.

Cautious approach

Having seen Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders sentenced to death, Ennadha played it safe.

Its members have genuine fears they may end up in prison once again.

Ennadha has also been constrained by its minority status.

In 2011 the party secured 37% of the vote. In the recent parliamentary elections, that was down to 25%.

In the 2011-12 parliamentary elections in Egypt, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative religious parties together won 68% of the vote.

Some believe Ennadha might become the Islamic equivalent of Western Europe’s Christian Democratic parties.

Others, deeply suspicious of the Islamists’ long-term objectives, dismiss such predictions as naive.

In Tunisia the Islamists won power and proved willing to give it up”

These arguments about the role of Islam obscure other key issues.

Journalists on the presidential election campaign trail reported that most Tunisians were more concerned by economics than religion.

Many middle-class Tunisians had a stake in the Ben Ali system.

They enjoyed safe jobs that paid enough to provide for their families.

It’s not just the fabulously rich elite that hankers after the old economic order.

Ben Ali eventually failed because he could not provide jobs for Tunisia’s highly educated youth.

None of Tunisia’s current politicians have a credible plan to address that problem.

International financial officials based in Tunis say significant economic activity could be generated by breaking up state-sanctioned trading monopolies that currently favour leading families.

But even such simple reforms – never mind more difficult ones – seem beyond the post-Ben Ali political generation.

Concerns over stability

There are other reasons to worry about Tunisia’s stability.

Should Mr Essebsi lose the second-round presidential vote, the somewhat eclectic forces that have coalesced into Nidaa Tounes might break up.

There are also fears that the chaos in neighbouring Libya could embolden Salafists to become more active in Tunisia.

But for all the vulnerabilities, Tunisia’s democratic gains are impressive.

And Ennadha’s record raises questions about how the Muslim Brotherhood should be perceived more broadly.

Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain describe the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

A major British government review of the Brotherhood recently concluded that it was a largely non-violent movement and should not be described as terroristic.

That has led to accusations that the UK fails to understand the dangers posed by political Islam – if it took centuries of often violent politics to reduce the Church’s power in the West, then why shouldn’t Western capitals support regimes making an equivalent effort to keep religion out of politics in the Middle East and North Africa?

For their part, the Islamists complain that the Western powers offer too little support for the democratic process.

When religious parties won elections in Algeria and Gaza, the West was reluctant to accept the outcome.

Even in Egypt, Western capitals seem to have accepted President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s authoritarianism with almost audible sighs of relief.

The diminishing popularity of Ennadha between 2011 and 2014 suggests that those concerned about political Islam, whether in Western Europe, the Middle East or North Africa should be more patient.
Problems ahead

The scale of the social and economic problems in the Middle East and North Africa are likely to get the better of any government, whatever its ideological foundations.

Once in power, Islamists are just as likely to fail as anyone else.

Mainstream Islamist leaders, many of whom have spent years in prison, are often too out of touch to run modern government ministries.

And more radical administrations create even bigger problems for themselves.

Jihadist regimes in Afghanistan, western Pakistan and now parts of Iraq and Syria have been so brutal that many potential sympathisers have been put off.

But for many critics of political Islam, the key question is whether Islamists once in power would hold free and fair elections that might result in their defeat.

Certainly, many secular politicians in the region have been unwilling to do so.

Is there any reason to believe that the Islamists would behave any better?

It is difficult to make generalisations. The Muslim Brotherhood has a history of allowing its national level organisations to go their own way.

But in Tunisia the Islamists won power and proved willing to give it up.

And that is one of the main reasons the country’s democratic development is still on track.

  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.