By WILLIAM SCHOMBURG
The Arab World. Three innocuous words that can evoke images of turmoil and terror. Sometimes rightly so: Syria’s civil war has claimed the lives of over 100,000 civilians and has provided a breeding ground for violent extremism. In Yemen, a three-way conflict against the central government has thrown the state into virtual nonexistence. Egypt’s revolution has been appropriated and re-appropriated, allowing the most populous country in the Middle East to slip back into authoritarian rule. Often overlooked, Tunisia is quietly preparing to be both an example and exemplar of political transition in the Arab World.
Mohammad Bouazizi was by most accounts a nice guy. The modest income he earned from selling food produce on the side of a dusty Tunisian road prior to his self-immolation went to support his sister’s college education and other impoverished family members. The street vendor became frustrated at having his scales confiscated one day. Being dealt with harshly by the authorities, Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set fire to his body. A few weeks later in January 2011, he eventually died from the burns he suffered. Bouazizi’s act was a response to the stagnancy and corruption that riddled his Tunisia, a country that was unable to meet the needs of a growing population. What Bouazizi could probably have never imagined at the time was that the protest his death sparked would catalyse a wave of regional fury. This is because the problems that stifled Tunisia were the same restrictions imposed on populations across the Arab World by aging kleptocrats who were courted by the West.
The term Arab Spring feels cheap nowadays. Tunisia, the original site of revolt, is however on the verge of being the first country where the term might still be appropriate. On Oct. 26th, Tunisia’s legislative elections – followed by presidential elections one month later – will represent the first full transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa since the protests began. However, not everything in Tunisia has been smooth sailing. The interim government that took over in 2011 backtracked on promises and delayed elections numerous times. A constitution was finally agreed upon in January 2014 after bitter political debate. It effectively caused the government to dissolve in favour of the current technocratic caretaker administration.
Moreover, the crises that have erupted from political assassinations, such as that of secular political Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, have demonstrated the fragility of the political landscape. This has been tested further by the entry of Islamist politics into the mainstream that has created cleavages in Tunisian society. Since the withdrawal of the French in 1957, Tunisia’s strongmen, Ben Ali and Habib Bourghiba before him, were tireless in their efforts to marginalize Muslim traditions. Like other secular authoritarians in the neighborhood, Tunisia’s leaders banned women from wearing the headscarf in public spaces despite a traditional society.
This oppression was extended to the political sphere. Rashid Al-Ghannushi, the leader of the main Islamist party, the Ennahda Movement, and thousands like him were imprisoned and exiled under the old guard. The tables have since turned. Ennahda was the single largest party in the 2011 legislative vote and they are poised to perform at least as well in the coming weeks. This shift has facilitated a re-emergence of social conservatism. Women may now for example cover their hair without fear. Secularists, on the other hand, worry that Tunisians will be stripped of their considerable civil liberties if Islamists are empowered. Ghannushi does not view religious identity and freedom as mutually exclusive. He has consistently articulated his belief that Islam and democracy can coexist.
While many believe that Ghannushi is a fundamentalist wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing, he has done little to vindicate this viewpoint. Ennahda has cooperated closely with ISIE – the oversight body responsible for ensuring the plurality and transparency of Tunisia’s elections. In turn, ISIE has welcomed election observers from the European Union, the African Union and international organizations. A recently returned delegation from the National Democratic Institute commented that “Tunisia has pursued a decidedly democratic path… The 2014 elections represent a milestone in the consolidation of democratic transition.”
Challenges in Tunisia remain. Extreme salafist parties exist and refuse to engage in the system while young Tunisians increasingly feel the need to travel and fight in violent jihad overseas. A lingering fear that a repetition of the coup that ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt remains foreseeable in Tunisia. Ennahda refuses to field a presidential candidate. The party instead focuses on the legislative elections. Despite all of this, we can be hopeful for Tunisia. If things go to plan – with a bit of luck they will – Tunisia’s democracy can blow apart the prejudice of critics. More importantly perhaps, it can serve as a model for other countries in the region. Without doubt the problems in Tunis today differ deeply from those in Cairo or Damascus. Other regional conflicts have greater geopolitical dimensions and affect larger populations. And yet the symbolism and practical implementation of real transition in Tunisia may well serve as both a model and inspiration for inclusive change much further afield.