Commentary

Tunisia Leads the Way

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

It has been three years since the ouster of Tunisia’s longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and for many regional observers the country remains the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing landscape. The progenitor of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is on the cusp of doing what many other countries in the region have tried and failed to do. Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister recently ceded power in favor of a technocratic government in the most recent indicator that, despite the ongoing violence and instability in the country, Tunisia is moving forward to a more economically and politically stable future.

In a review of the progress made in the MENA countries over the last three years, Al Jazeera’s Larbi Sadiki argues that the region has seen marked improvements, but that age-old schisms continue to hamper the progress of these countries: “The third anniversary has not dimmed the original optimism even when the surroundings are largely pessimistic, with the qualified exception of Tunisia. The public squares of protest still draw crowds even if numbers continue to dwindle....Thus far, the measures introduced to transform countries that had clear ousters have focused on elections, constitutions (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia) and national dialogue (Tunisia, Yemen). However, old systems and their modes of doing politics have not, as yet, been turned into irretrievable relics. Ideological divisions and squabbles from the 1970s and 1980s pitting Islamists against secularists, continue in both Egypt and Tunisia.”

When it comes to Tunisia, however, most observers agree that the transformation of the country in the post-Ben Ali years is cause for optimism. A recent op-ed by Gulf Today makes that case that “Three years after the first Arab Spring uprising against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia is in the final stages of establishing a full democracy before new elections that would be a bright spot in an unstable region....With an ailing economy and a precarious situation, the future government does have a tough task on hand. Another key issue for Jomaa is the threat posed by armed militants. But there is no doubt that Tunisia has the strength to withstand challenges and its leaders are capable of steering the country on the path to progress.”

Similarly, a Peninsula editorial notes the reaction of the Tunisian political class as well as its people to the recent assassination of two opposition leaders: “If the Middle East is a dark tunnel, Tunisia provides a huge ray of hope. This small North African nation has edged closer to establishing full democracy since 2011 than any other Arab Spring country....Tunisia can serve as a model for other Arab countries in that it has been able to grapple successfully with the problem of Islamism. Tunisia struggled with divisions over the role of Islam and the rise of militants since its uprising, but the assassination of the two opposition leaders last year triggered a crisis. Instead of choosing chaos, Tunisians decided to step back from the brink. One factor which has helped in the transition is that Tunisia is one of the most secular countries in the Arab world.”

But what is it that makes the Tunisian case stand out from the rest and what can other countries in the region learn from the Tunisian experience? Writing for the Tunis Times, Colin Kilkelly highlights the role of the civil society and the cooperation among the competing political forces as one of the main ingredients of success: “The Quartet, including traditional opponents such as the UGTT and UTICA, have come together with leading political parties in an attempt to resolve the political deadlock in Tunisia. This is the only example of civil society successfully working with political parties to resolve the political deadlock between Islamists and moderate secularists in the Arab World, and Tunisia should be proud of this.... Perhaps the divisions between Islamists and moderate Islamic secularists will gradually soften and the Sunni -Shia divide which has lasted so long can be resolved. Economic reality, if nothing else, should encourage a return to normality in Tunisia.”

Meanwhile, Joseph Kechichian, a senior writer for Gulf News, expresses his admiration for the willingness of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, whose Islamist Party Ennahda won the last elections, to accept the alternance principle: “By January 14, 2014, the third anniversary of Bin Ali’s ouster, Tunisian politicians will vote to adopt the country’s new constitution. Simultaneously, they will form a new government to replace the one headed by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh (of Al Nahda) who accepted the alternance principle. Mehdi Jomaa, an independent trade union official, was slated to succeed him, which further confirmed how the concept entered the political lexicon....When it is finally adopted, the democratizing procedure will end months of political crises that plunged Tunis into chronic instability, even if Tunisians understood that the very process of regime change did not need to destroy their country or way of life.”

But much remains to be done, and some Tunisians are looking elsewhere for models of economic and political stability and progress. One of them is Brahim Guizani, who, in an article for Tunisia Live, suggests postwar Japan as a model for Tunisia: “I think the lessons we can learn from the Japanese case are very important for safeguarding a successful transition of the first Arab Spring country....believe that it is very crucial for any society experiencing a major change to know the safeguards that can guarantee the success of its turmoiled transition. The Japanese experience can, I think, provide very useful lessons for Tunisians.... The path toward a stable, liberal, and democratic state is already smoothed by an apolitical national army. However, this enthusiastically aspired-to goal will still depend on the maturity of the Tunisian political elite, either in power or in opposition.”

Finally, the good news coming out of Tunisia should not blind its leaders and its people to the risks that the current transition period still carry. As Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el cautions us, the current anti-Islamist sentiment in the country among the country’s secular elite should not be allowed to justify discrimination against Ennahda’s supporters: “Three years after the revolution in Tunisia, the situation of these women has not really improved, despite the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party. Women wearing veils are still not allowed to enter university classrooms. Even though the law permits this, lecturers and university presidents encourage the removal of veils....Tunisia is far from having neutralized these issues. Its new government will have to prove it can overcome these tensions, then try to advance a new constitution that will accommodate the demands of Ennahda and its supporters.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.