Christian Caryl

Can Tunisia Save the Arab Spring?

Of all the Arab Spring countries, little Tunisia is the one that's making the most progress toward full-fledged democracy.


The great dawn of the Arab Spring has darkened. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood continues to seize as much power as it can get. Unruly militias bedevil Libya. In Bahrain, discontent seethes beneath a blanket of repression. Syria is a slaughterhouse.

Yet Rached Ghannouchi has a strikingly positive story to tell about his country — one that runs counter to a lot of the headlines. Ghannouchi is the head of Ennahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, and in that capacity he’s been instrumental in organizing the grand coalition that has governed in the wake of the country’s 2011 revolution. Lately his party has been deeply involved in the drafting of a new constitution, a crucial step in Tunisia’s progress towards full-fledged democracy. Tunisia, says Ghannouchi, was the birthplace of the Arab Spring — now he hopes that it can become the "the birthplace of Arab democracy." As he told me during a recent interview here in Washington, he firmly believes that the entire Middle East and North Africa region has a stake in what happens in Tunisia. I’m inclined to think he’s right.

Tunisia is often regarded as the Arab Spring country with the best preconditions for a successful transition. After the fall of dictator Zin el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisians moved quickly on to elections, which were won by Ennahda with 41 percent of the vote. But the Islamist victors — in stark contrast to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood — decided to share the spoils, and proceeded to establish an interim government based on a coalition with Ettakatol, the leading social democratic party. As a result, Ghannouchi says, the government since then has been based on a combination of "a moderate Islamist party and a moderate secular party." As Ghannouchi put it to me, the two trends, the religious and the secular, have fought each other for most of the past 50 years in the Islamic world: "The Tunisian experience proves that they can work together."

On June 1, after 16 months of deliberation, the committee in charge of drawing up the constitution finally agreed upon a draft, which it passed along to the members of Tunisia’s provisional legislature. The lawmakers are expected to vote on the draft by the end of this summer. It’s yet to be decided whether the new constitution will also be put up for approval in a national referendum.

Coming up with the draft has been tough. The whole process has taken 16 months; the Tunisians went through two earlier version of the constitution before they came up with the current one. And there are still plenty of potential problems ahead. Some Tunisian lawmakers say that they were bypassed in one stage of the drafting process, contrary to the agreed rules. International human rights organizations express concern that the current version of the constitution doesn’t do enough to enshrine some key safeguards.

Ghannouchi, though, says that it’s worth taking a step back to appreciate just how much the drafters have achieved. "We gave many concessions to guarantee the continuity of this coalition," he says, insisting that both the religious and the secularists can find something to like in the document they’ve drawn up: "The constitution is not made for one party or one trend." There are undoubtedly many Tunisians who would still disagree. But there’s little question that Tunisia has gone farther than any other Arab Spring country in incorporating a broad range of opinions in the constitutional drafting process.

If Tunisia can pull it off, the implications are huge. Having a constitution supported by a relatively broad consensus of political forces is a giant step forward in itself. Once the constitution is passed, the Tunisians can get on with the business of electing a proper government, finally bringing the post-revolutionary interim to an end and giving the country the stability it needs to overcome its two biggest problems: a weak economy and the rise of violent Islamist groups.

The two issues are closely related. The revolution has hit Tunisia’s economy hard, deterring tourists and spooking investors. Unemployment, already high under Ben Ali, has spiked. That has left many frustrated young men casting about for radical solutions — and some of them are gravitating to Ansar al-Sharia, the same revolutionary Salafi group that achieved notoriety by killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya last year. Tunisia’s version of the group has been linked to many violent incidents in the country, though their involvement remains murky. (The photo above shows the wife of Chokri Belaid, a secular politician who was assassinated earlier this year, demanding justice for his death at a demonstration in Tunis last month.)

Lately, the government in Tunis has been struggling to reanimate the economy, but so far to little effect. (Tunisia’s main export sector, the phosphate industry, has virtually ground to a halt, hard hit by labor unrest and general instability.) The ruling coalition has also shown admirable toughness in its response to the Ansar al-Sharia threat, recently banning a planned conference by the group. Ghannouchi says that the government is encouraging the group to register as a political organization, a step that would require it to renounce violence and accept the rule of law.

As Ghannouchi points out, rejecting a dictator like Ben Ali is one thing; rejecting today’s democratically elected government (with its large Islamist component) is another altogether. "If they refuse this proposal, this opportunity, they will be isolated," he says. "They will face not [only] the government but society as a whole."

So Tunisia definitely isn’t over the hump yet. Yet the country’s determination to remain on the road toward democratic consensus potentially makes it a hugely resonant example for the rest of the region.

The inclusive Tunisian approach to constitution-writing casts a starkly unflattering light on the comparable process in Egypt, where the Brotherhood railroaded its own draft through the legislature more or less overnight. Tunisia’s robust state institutions — which could soon acquire greater legitimacy from a democratic constitution — offer a good model to neighboring Libya, which is still struggling to overcome the tensions between the central government and the centripetal forces of sectional militias and regional separatism. Last but not least, the efforts of Tunisian Islamists to build a new state in collaboration with their secularist rivals sends a strong signal to Tehran, where an Islamist government is once again demonstrating just how little it’s interested in anything resembling genuine democracy.

These are all excellent reasons why both the United States and the European Union need to work even harder to support the transition in Tunisia. Efforts to bolster the economy by the International Monetary Fund (which just signed off on a crucial loan to the country in April) and other international financial institutions are just as crucial as assistance to Tunisian political parties, civil society groups, and labor unions. To be sure, only the Tunisians themselves can ensure that their democratic experiment will end well. But the more the West can help, the better.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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