Of the four Arab countries that experienced the Arab Uprising season in 2011 and had their longtime leaders toppled—plus a fifth (Syria) where an armed rebellion still rages—only Tunisia can thus far be considered a success story. Having removed President Ben Ali in January 2011 with relatively minor violence, Tunisians proceeded to elect a constitutional assembly, two successive national assemblies, an interim, and now a fully elected new president (though the final runoff votes have yet to be cast), without any major clashes either between army and populace or between the competing Islamist and secular parties. So far, so good. The real test lies ahead in the ability of the winning party to lead the people, integrate the factions, and balance Tunisia’s need for security and economic progress with the original purpose of the uprising—democracy. President and Parliament will have their work cut out for them in the months ahead.
Four years into the Arab Uprising, and right where the initial spark took place, Tunisia remains a success story, having transitioned from a police state into a budding consensual democracy with minimal violence and, thus far, manageable political polarization. Tunisian’s own pragmatism and ability to compromise have had much to do with this success. This pragmatism, however, was much aided by an army that was kept relatively small (under 40,000 men in arms) and outside of the political arena by both previous regimes, Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s. Tunisia’s geographic location also helped. Outside the Levant’s vicious circle of internecine rivalries and wars with Israel, Tunisia was spared both the regional and international interventions that continue to plague its neighbors to the east.
The Road Thus Far Traveled
That said, there have been many conflicts and acts of violence that threatened at times to tear apart the social fabric and destroy the ability of rival factions to work together towards a new political system in the country. To begin with, the uprising was relatively peaceful but not bloodless. Several hundred Tunisians were killed by sniper bullets and clashes with the country’s security apparatus during the early days of the uprising, both before and after Ben Ali had left the country. The combined masses of Islamist Ennahda and secular liberal youth, however, were too numerous and persistent for the police, without army assistance, to overcome. Nor was the violence limited to clashes with the old regime. After a new, Ennahda government was installed based on the results of the first parliamentary election, secular minded Tunisians took to the streets again to protest the Islamist party’s attempts to slowly pass legislation reversing the gains made by women and secularists during the years since independence. Salafi parties also took to the streets from the opposite side of the political spectrum demanding a more rigorous instatement of Sharia law in the country. In both cases, demonstrators clashed with security forces to cries of harsh police tactics and casualties. The Ennahda government was, therefore, attacked from both the right and left for doing too much, or too little, to Islamize the country.
The same symptoms of mutual distrust and desire to reconstruct society according to their own image plagued the various Tunisian factions as it does the other societies in transition in the region. Tunisians, however, have managed so far to step back from the brink of civil war whenever passions boiled and tempers flared and spilled onto the streets. In 2013, with the successive assassinations of secular oppositionists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, secular oppositionists blamed the government of at best having turned a blind eye to Salafi violence and at worst having actually colluded in the elimination of rival leaders. The country looked to be on the precipice during the summer of 2013 with popular pressure mounting against the government. Finally, in October of the same year, the Ennahda leadership agreed to step down in favor of a government of technocrats tasked with preparing for the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014. Secular activists place the credit for the changeover to street protests, while Islamists, and many western observers credit Ennahda’s Islamist leadership with having the pragmatism to step down before things got out of control. One thing is certain, there was no military intervention and no one from Ennahda had to be forcibly removed from office. The fact is, Ennahda, responding to mounting popular pressure, agreed to an early transition into new elections, which would be the practice in any parliamentary democracy where elections could be called before the parliamentary term is over, if it looked like the government in office had lost the confidence of a large portion of the electorate. Kudos are due all around to Tunisians from both sides of the aisle.
The Road Ahead
Much like Egypt, the moderate Islamist party’s short stay in power did not endear them to the secularists with whom they collaborated to bring down the Ben Ali regime. The party also lost ground in the center, with Tunisians who were willing to give either of the two major blocs a chance to prove worthy of the public’s confidence. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia’s military did not step in to remove the Islamists, who read the tea leaves on their own and bowed to the public will. Nidaa Tounes, the main secular power bloc, won a plurality of 85 seats in the latest election and anticipates the election of its leader as the new president, hence securing both executive and legislative power in the country. The challenges ahead are the following:
- Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa and looking very much like the president-elect at this writing, is very much old guard, having worked for both founding president Bourguiba and his successor, the ousted Ben Ali. Essebsi is also well into his eighties. He has to make sure the old regime does not make a full comeback on the coattails of his victory, by opening the doors of his party to democratic liberal youth and to middle class Tunisians who do not have the connections to old money and old regime power brokers. If Essebsi fails in this regard, he will alienate the very people who made his victory possible, and Ennahda will be waiting in the wings to take advantage of such failure.
- Having failed to secure a full majority in parliament, Nidaa Tounes will have to govern in coalition, either with smaller parties or with in a national unity government with Ennahda. This is something the Islamists, both in Egypt and in Tunisia, failed to do in a convincing manner. The legislative agenda will have to be sensitive to the needs and desires of all Tunisians and not just to the party faithful.
- Security will be a huge factor in the months to come. Tunisia’s moderate Islamists and secularists are flanked to the extreme right by Salafi groups and other extremists who are currently exporting young Jihadis to the ongoing war in the Levant. The several thousand Tunisian supporters of ISIS, both inside the country and out, will pose a significant security risk to Tunisia’s political stability in the near future. It is vital that the victors of the latest election not sacrifice democracy in the name of security and stability, unless, as happened in Egypt, they want to end up with neither.
Finally, Nidaa Tounes needs to demonstrate a democratic tendency within the party by having a transparent decision making and succession system in order to secure a smooth transition from Essebsi to a younger generation of leaders, and also to prove they are not going to turn exclusivist and try to eliminate their political opponents. Ennahda, for one, having seen what happened to their counterparts in Egypt, will be watching closely to make sure their pragmatism does not lead them to political oblivion.