Tunis calling

Tunisia’s Arab Spring can teach the Palestinians a thing or two.

Tunisians sit on the steps of the opera house 370 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Tunisians sit on the steps of the opera house 370
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
The nation that set the Arabic-speaking world on fire stands in a position to inspire the region again. For Egypt and Libya, Tunisia’s reforms provide a model for their own faltering democratic processes. However, Tunisia may be a far more powerful example with regards to the Palestinian Authority still trying to hammer out its own governmental structure.
Largely “built” in Tunis during the 1980s, after PLO leader Yasser Arafat fled there from Beirut, today’s Palestinian Authority seems to draw significantly from its past experience. For PA President Mahmoud Abbas, it is apparent that the lessons he learned in Tunis have influenced him, a man who places a high value on key issues such as education, women’s empowerment and employment.
Tunisia’s month-long revolution last year sparked the Arab Spring movement, encouraging dissent across the region, and leading to the ouster of Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi. Since Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abdine Ben Ali was deposed, his former country has made great strides towards becoming the first Arab Spring country to reach the democratic end-goal, praised by leaders in many Western nations. Moreover, it has become a remarkably moderate country, given the Islamist influence prevalent there.
Last week in Tunis, a freely-elected assembly heatedly debated a new constitution. In the early hours on Tuesday morning, July 17, Tunisia’s most powerful Islamist party reelected a moderate, Rachid Ghannouchi, as its head, muffling more radical calls for Islamist leadership. The majority party, Ennahda, even announced that Sharia Law would not influence the character of new legislative or judicial systems, an apparent concession to the secular parties that form the ruling coalition.
Such cooperation between conservative and secular factions, straddled by Ghannouchi, could help form the basis of similar dialogue between analogous parties in the West Bank and Gaza. The political dynamics in the Palestinian territories resemble Tunisia’s to a certain degree.
Abbas, head of the West Bank’s secular Fatah party, has tried time and again to reconcile with the Islamist Hamas leadership in Gaza. A list of Middle Eastern cities attests to the failed attempts: Cairo, Mecca, Sanaa. But as Tunisia enters the next phase of its revolution, there might yet be hope.
Ennahda most closely resembles the political face of Hamas, and the connections between the two groups are strong. Ennahda leadership have described Palestine as “the central cause of the Arab- Muslim nation,” and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal recently addressed the congress of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party. These ties are of course worrying, for despite Hamas’ reforms in recent years it still remains committed to militant resistance to Israel. Ennahda’s support – and success in Tunisia – emboldens adherents to this stance.
Yet Ennahda has managed to work effectively within a Tunisian coalition with secular democratic parties. Ghannouchi’s election solidified this cooperation. The most important debate in Tunis today is not whether agreement is possible, but rather whether a strong presidency or a parliamentary system is best. The outcome will most likely to be a compromise with the liberal and left-wing opposition parties. Hamas should follow this example.
Although closed-door policy sessions have produced “few smiles” according to Tunisia’s Human Rights Minister Samir Dilou, Ennahda party officials announced that there would be an opening of a great number of posts to members of small parties that were not yet part of the ruling “troika,” the coalition of Ennahdha, and two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.
The biggest hurdle facing the secularists is their own disunity, which was a major reason for their defeat in the most recent elections when many secular votes were wasted on independent candidates.
Fatah politics mirrors this discord. Numerous rivalries exist within Fatah leadership and competing local councils. Like their Tunisian counterparts, this rivalry led to an electoral loss, in this case to Hamas in the 2006 elections.
Can the secularists in Tunisia teach Fatah a lesson?
The coming months will provide a more definite answer, but the outlook is positive. Most secular Tunisians feel that they could defeat Ennahda in future elections if only they were united. The 85- year-old former prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, who has played a prominent role in Tunisian politics since the 1950s, is trying to achieve this feat. If Fatah can learn a lesson from Essebsi, it should be this: unity before opposition. Only by finding a single voice can its policies become electorally viable.
As for Hamas, it should learn a thing or two from Ennahda: political participation above militancy.
The international community will never recognize Hamas as a legitimate factor until it ceases from its terrorist activities and joins the political community.
If Palestinian factions finally come together, a constructive dialogue can be opened with Israeli officials to manage their enduring conflict. If the right lessons are learned, Tunis’s success could model the achievement of this goal.

The writer is the Dean’s Scholar at the University of Chicago, and the founding editor of The Post-War Watch, an online repository of original analysis about the legacy of Western operations in the Middle East and the region’s future.