Mideast Monitor: Bellwether Tunisia

A possible candidate for successful democratic transition.

Cartoon (photo credit: Avi Katz)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Improbably, the spark for the upheavals that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa these last two years was lit, literally, by a despairing 26-year-old street vendor in a dusty, provincial Tunisian town. After according Tunisia a brief moment in the spotlight, the international and regional media largely abandoned the country for hotter topics and new flashpoints of conflict and tension.
But Tunisia is worthy of at least some attention. According to Prof. Alfred Stepan of Columbia University, Tunisia’s post-revolutionary strides have been undergirded by “twin tolerations”. The first requires that religious citizens accept the authority of democratically elected leaders to legislate and govern, without questioning their legitimacy on religious grounds; the second recognizes the right of religious citizens to compete freely in the market place of ideas and politics, as long as they respect the rights of others.
To be sure, Stepan notes that Tunisia has not yet consolidated its democracy. Indeed, these twin tolerations are looking increasingly fragile, as is the improbable Islamist-secular-leftist coalition that has managed Tunisian affairs for the last year.
Up until now, Tunisia’s post-revolutionary experience has been marked by a far greater degree of power-sharing and dialogue among the various societal actors, agreement on a timetable for establishing permanent governing institutions and democratic mechanisms for choosing their leaders, and a far lower level of violence than elsewhere.
As was true in the post-Mubarak Egypt and in other “Arab Spring” countries, Tunisia’s Islamist current quickly emerged as the prime actor in the new, evolving order. But, unlike elsewhere, a central aspect of Tunisia’s experience has been a governing alliance between the Islamist Ennahda party and two leading secular left-of-center parties, designed to enable the adoption of a new constitution and the holding of general elections in 2013.
The experiment, if it succeeds, could produce the first genuinely democratic and even quasi-liberal polity in the Arab world. However, its roots are fragile, and by the summer of 2012, the initial optimism had faded.
From the moment that Habib Bourguiba declared independence in March 1956 until the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben-Ali in January 2011, Tunisia had essentially been an authoritarian state, dominated by the president and his coterie. But it has always been deemed a possible candidate for successful democratic transition, thanks to its well-defined national identity, both socially and territorially, a comparatively benign colonial experience, the presence of a relatively large and educated middle class, and its promotion of women’s rights.
Even Tuni sia’s Islamists were somehow different. While seeking to reassert Tunisia’s Islamic cultural roots in the face of French-inspired secularism Tunisia’s leading Islamist thinker, Rashid al-Ghannushi, developed a “soft”, non-compulsory approach to the Islamization of society, which included the establishment of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Hence, a certain degree of dialogue and mutual respect between the Islamists and secular-liberal opponents of Ben-Ali gradually developed during their long years in opposition, planting the seeds for the post Ben-Ali era.
The current interim phase centers on two interrelated processes: 1) Creating durable and legitimate governing institutions which will enable the authorities to effectively tackle deep-seated economic and social problems and thus ensure social and political stability; and 2) Managing and balancing the country’s rival Islamic and Western cultural sensibilities and norms.
Importantly, for anxious Tunisian secularists, no reference to the shari’a law as a source of legislation was included in the recently issued draft constitution. But they are nonetheless growing increasingly suspicious: Salafi Islamist parties have been legalized, blasphemy laws are being introduced and punishments meted out to violators, pressure on the independent media is being applied, and Ennahda is pushing for a system in which the parliament, and not the president, will hold all powers (the secularists want a mixed system, to offset Ennahda’s electoral strength). Strikes, demonstrations and police brutality have all become part of Tunisian life this summer, and Tunisian politics is likely to become messier in the coming months.
It is thus no longer clear that the fragile Tunisian center can hold. And, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if it can’t happen in Tunisia, it can’t happen anywhere in the region, at least for the time being. •
The author is the Marcia Israel Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.