Democracy in Tunisia

It would be a tragedy if the democratic process ended up bringing to power an Islamist party that uses its mandate to roll back reforms.

Ennahda party Tunisia 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ennahda party Tunisia 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that Tunisia was a prime candidate for democracy. Since Huntington’s book was published this became even more true.
The country’s impressive economic growth, educated middle class, high rate of female literacy, strong sense of a unified national identity, non-politicized military, and relatively active civil culture of labor unions and Bar association seemed to position the Maghreb country particularly well for a democratic system of government.
Huntington’s assessment now seems to have been vindicated.
Starting December of last year, Tunisia became the first Arab country to rebel against and then overthrow its autocratic leadership, without any significant outside intervention.
In the process, Tunisia’s masses set in motion the Arab Spring. Grassroots uprisings that took the world by surprise swept through Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
On Sunday, Tunisia became the very first of the Arab Spring nations to hold a free, democratic election. Yet, while voting was remarkably well organized and turnout was exceedingly high, the victory of the Islamist Ennahda, or “Renaissance” party, which garnered a plurality of about 40 percent, according to preliminary vote tallies, is a worrying sign.
If Islamists have succeeded in Tunisia, a country widely considered to be the most secularized and democracy-inclined Arab country, the prospects for Egypt and Libya, both preparing for their own elections, are far from promising.
Admittedly, in comparison to other Islamists parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which stands a good chance of coming to power in Egypt’s upcoming elections, or Hamas, which in 2006 took advantage of a hastily implemented democratic election among Palestinians to rise to power, Ennahda, can, and has, been referred to as “soft Islamist” in its approach.
Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s head, said in an interview with Al Jazeera after returning to Tunisia from exile that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party was closest to Ennahda’s in its outlook. Though he was attempting to point to Ennahda’s relatively moderate political approach, Ghannushi’s analogy was hardly comforting.
Turkey regularly represses the press and intimidates secular military and business figures at home, while forming an anti-Western axis in the region with the likes of Iran and Egypt’s up-and-coming Islamists.
Ghannouchi is also rabidly anti-Israel. Following the end of the Gaza War in January 2009, for instance, Ghannouchi praised Allah who “routed the Zionist Jews,” and labeled the Israeli withdrawal/disengagement from Gaza in 2005 as “the first step in the complete victory of all of Palestine and the holy places of the Muslims.”
Living under former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic regime was undoubtedly unpleasant for most Tunisians. The man was regularly reelected, sometimes getting more than 90 percent of the vote – a sure sign that human beings’ natural propensity for dissent had been either bypassed by ballot fraud or repressed by intimidation. Security forces regularly patrolled Internet cafes and other supposed hotbeds of sedition. The reason cited for the state’s intrusive policing was the need to counter Islamic extremists.
However, it was abundantly clear that once suppression of dissent was condoned for one group it became unruly and imperfect and metastasized, though it never reached the maniacal extremes witnessed in, say, neighboring Libya.
Ben Ali’s regime was not all bad, however. When the ancient synagogue on Djerba Island was truck-bombed by al-Qaida in April 2002, for instance, the government rushed to express solidarity and to rebuild.
It has been two decades since Huntington accurately assessed Tunisia’s potential for developing a democratic regime. His prediction has come true. It would be a tragedy and a sober lesson about the dangers of democracy if the very democratic process envisioned for Tunisia by Huntington ended up bringing to power an Islamist political party that will use its democratic mandate to roll back the positive reforms implemented under Ben Ali’s autocratic regime.