Voters may turn back the clock on ‘Arab Spring’

The 2011 revolution that ousted ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did change the rules of the game from the past, but parallels to Egypt and continuity with the previously ousted regime cannot be missed.

Election workers count ballots for Tunisia's presidential election (photo credit: REUTERS)
Election workers count ballots for Tunisia's presidential election
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Tunisia, where the ‘Arab Spring’ began in 2011, voters appeared on Sunday to come full circle, with preliminary election results showing the majority supporting a former official with the toppled regime.
Beji Caid Essebsi, of the anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes Party, is slightly ahead of rival Moncef Marzouki, the incumbent president, who has warned against the return of “one-party era” figures like Essebsi, according to initial results tweeted by the Tunisialive website on Monday.
Early results in the country’s first presidential ballot since the uprising were expected later on Monday, but the parties of the two front-runners said initial tallies show they would face off next month in a second round.
Turnout is estimated to be close to 65 percent, according to Agence Tunis Afrique Presse.
Perhaps the poor results of the Arab uprisings – at least partly due to the failure of Islamist parties that had swept into power in Tunisia and Egypt – had the North African country’s voters favoring stability and the old order. The image of atrocities and violence throughout the region, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen, has many Arabs preferring security even at the expense of democratic values.
Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, the first Islamist movement to secure power after the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, was defeated in last month’s elections, perhaps drawing a lesson from the failed power grab of Islamists in Egypt.
Unlike former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist scholar who spent decades in exile in Britain, acted pragmatically when faced with overwhelming opposition, instead of seizing power.
The 2011 revolution that ousted long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did change the rules of the game from the past, but parallels to Egypt and continuity with the previously ousted regime cannot be missed.
Tunisia, which is said to be the most Western Arab state, is divided between Islamists and a colligation of leftists, the less religious, unions, and anti-Islamist forces. Many experts are generally optimistic about Tunisia’s political future, even if they hedge due to the unpredictability of the country’s future.
H.A. Hellyer, writing on the Al-Arabiya website, is unsure whether the election will inject new political ideas into the Arab world.
“As of yet, it does not seem as though Tunisia is going to be the country that produces that new, inspirational political thought – something that can prove to be an alternative to the people of Tunisia and beyond, instead of forcing them to pick between various deficient forces,” he wrote.
“Perhaps that will change – but as of yet, there’s little sign of that.”
“Tunisians ought to be grateful that they have held it together thus far – and the international community should support them in maintaining the democratic path,” he added.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a principal research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a contributor to The Jerusalem Report, told The Jerusalem Post that revolutions never move in a straight line. “The fact that an institutional process has been established and is considered legitimate is significant and is what makes the Tunisian experience unique,” he said.
Tunisian society includes a degree of pluralism and a willingness of the Islamists to participate and recognize the rules of the game, thus increasing the likelihood that there will be a broad coalition, he said.
“Now Tunisia moves on with the business of ‘normal’ politics - coping with myriad economic and social challenges and insulating itself from the jihadists in the region - no easy task for sure. Governing is hard, even in states with established institutions,” added Maddy-Weitzman.
Sarah Feuer, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post, “We need to be careful about rushing to judgment about the long-term import of these elections.”
While it is true that some members of Nida Tounes formerly served in governments under previous autocratic governments, says Feuer, “the Tunisia of 2014 is not the Tunisia of 2011, and too much has changed in the interim for us to conclude that this is simply a return to the status quo ante.”
“Ennahda, an Islamist party, will remain a key actor in the Tunisian political landscape for the foreseeable future,” she predicts, adding that civil society groups have demonstrated a capacity “to keep the transition on track.”
Feuer notes that “key political figures are on record stating that they intend to work together” and the new constitution “includes safeguards against the return to an authoritarian regime.”
“So, while there are no guarantees, it’s important to acknowledge the very different context in which Tunisian politicians find themselves today,” concluded Feuer.
Reuters contributed to this report.