Ten months after the collapse of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, Tunisia has produced a remarkable balancing act between the revolutionary urge for change and a pragmatic need for continuity. With elections for a constitutional assembly due to take place on October 23, the country that ignited the “Arab Awakening” is emerging as a regional paradigm for a stable democratic transition.
A number of preconditions have smoothed Tunisia’s path. Whereas Egypt struggles with the need to assert civilian control over the military, the Tunisian army has stayed out of politics. And, in contrast to Libya, the Tunisian population never took up arms during the protests. The economy does not run on hydrocarbons. And, notwithstanding serious inequalities between Tunisia’s littoral and inland areas, this small country of 10 million people is, according to the World Bank, an upper-middle-income economy.
Above all, civil institutions have proven to be resilient. A “Higher Council,” made up of notables of different backgrounds and political orientations, has been established to steer the transition. For all of the previous regime’s misdeeds, Tunisians are proud of their country’s liberal institutions, such as women’s rights and a progressive family code, adopted in 1956. Betraying some nostalgia, senior members of the administration speak privately of a “remarkable continuity” in the Tunisian transition.
But overall stability has not prevented cracks from emerging in more contentious areas. The security sector remains largely unreformed. The rough, transitional justice that often follows a change of regime has not taken place, at least not yet. In what is arguably the most striking change since the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia has witnessed the swift rise of an Islamist movement that was banned from the country for decades.
The ascent of Nahda (Renaissance), the leading Islamist party, is less a reflection of latent ideological support among a newly liberated people than it is a testament to the party’s remarkable ability to fill the post-revolutionary political vacuum. Since January, Nahda has opened more than 200 offices. Scores of volunteers are deployed in electoral campaigning at a grassroots, door-to-door level. The party’s imposing headquarters in the suburbs of Tunis symbolize its position as the most effective political operation in the country by far.
While opponents ominously recall the involvement of party cadres in the deadly bombings of tourist targets in 1991, Nahda has gone to some lengths to appease its critics. Its electoral program calls for constitutionalism, separation of powers, citizenship-based rights, and the protection of women’s rights. Adherence to such tenets would place Nahda in the same league of moderate Islamist parties as the Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and its Moroccan counterpart.
Much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nahda will have to marginalize the more militant fringes of Islamist politics, such as the salafis – and is likely to lose some of its supporters in the process. But Nahda’s ambition to win over – and, ultimately, stably occupy – the mainstream of Tunisia’s democratic politics requires nothing less.
There is no silver bullet to democratization. In Algeria in 1991, it was civil-society activists who called for a military intervention against the Islamists; in Tunisia in 2011, all political actors seem to accept that the Islamists’ democratic credentials must be tested through elections, and that the outcome must be respected. If Islamists are to be brought into the democratic fold and encouraged to move towards the political mainstream by getting their hands dirty in the give-and-take of day-to-day politics, then Tunisia may be the right place to try it.
Moreover, if there is such a thing as a Tunisian “model” of democratic revolution, its distinctiveness consists in its evolutionary character: the state administration has continued to function, and a cross-party consensus has emerged around basic social and economic policies. The middle class has taken charge, while a long-repressed Islamist contender has entered the fray of electoral politics.
Once a corrupt regime is removed, the road ahead often proves bumpy, as has been true in all of the countries affected by the Arab Awakening. But in Tunisia, what has also emerged is a lively nascent democracy that deserves the West’s support.