The popular uprisings that swept across the Middle East in 2011 started in Tunisia. When the long-term President, Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, was toppled after weeks of popular protests, people across the region were inspired to take to the streets. Amid scenes that would once have been unimaginable, leaders were ousted in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
Three years later, though, much of the optimism that characterised that time has dissipated. Most of the countries that saw uprisings have either reverted to authoritarian rule, as in Egypt, or descended into violence and chaos, as in Syria and Libya.
Tunisia, the place where it all began, has undergone the most successful transition. While the world’s attention has focused on the bloodshed in Syria and its overspill into Iraq, or the brutal repression of opposition activists by the military-backed regime in Egypt, Tunisia has gone quietly about the business of securing its transition to democracy. Earlier this year, the country adopted the most progressive constitution in the region. Parliamentary elections were held in October, and passed off peacefully. On Sunday, the country will see its first ever free presidential election. The 26 candidates running for this mainly ceremonial post include members of Ben Ali’s ousted regime; in a remarkable victory for pluralism, Tunisia’s parliament voted against a ban on members of the old regime running for office. This is despite the fact that many politicians serving today, including members of the Islamist Ennahda Party, were tortured under the previous regime; Ennahda voted against a ban.
So why has the democratic transition been easier in Tunisia than in neighbouring countries? Part of the reason is simply good luck. Tunisia had been under dictatorship for many years, but it had not suffered the collective trauma of years of military rule, as Egypt did, or of a gruesome civil war, like Algeria. It is also a homogenous society, largely free from the sectarian schisms that plague Yemen and Syria.
In addition to this good luck, there is also the fact that the country’s post-revolutionary leaders have been moderate and pragmatic. The Islamist Ennahda is the largest and most well-organised party in the country; it dominated politics after the fall of Ben Ali, but resisted the impulse to centralise power that other Islamist movements – like Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt – succumbed to. The party’s leaders were very conscious of fears in the west and elsewhere in the region about Islamist governments, and stressed the movement’s moderate and democratic credentials. When tensions were high last year after the murder of two opposition politicians, Ennahda disbanded its government to make way for a technocratic cabinet that could ensure free and fair elections.
Writing in the New York Times ahead of the presidential election this weekend, Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, said that the battle in the Middle East is not “between Islamism and secularism, but between democracy and despotism”. He continued: “Islamists are not only diverse in type, but have also evolved over the last century. Whereas their primary focus was once on protecting religious freedom and defending an identity that had undergone repression, many Islamists have come to participate in political parties whose principal focus is economic and social programmes aimed at protecting individual rights and achieving social justice.”
In the October election, the more secular Nidaa Tounes Party won the largest share of parliamentary seats. It has several ex-regime officials within its ranks, but promises that its victory will not mean a return to the old order. Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections, the priority must be for the new government to continue to rule by consensus.
Tunisia has made impressive progress but, of course, things are not perfect. The 2011 revolution was triggered by outrage over economic conditions. Living standards haven’t really changed much in the intervening period. The economy remains stagnant. Decades of corruption and the aligning of business and political interests have left a damaged economic system that will take considerable effort and political will to overhaul. Particularly in the more deprived southern part of the country, unemployment is high. Another sign that all is not well is that a significant number of Tunisians (estimated to be around 3,000) have gone to fight in Syria; they are thought to make up the largest contingent of foreign fighters in the conflict.
All of this goes to show that Tunisia is not immune to the problems afflicting the rest of the region. However, the progress that it has made so far, implementing a pluralistic and fair constitution, and working towards a genuinely inclusive political system, is a significant achievement that should not be sniffed at. Now, all political actors must continue to work together in order to build a new future, free of the problems left by years of dictatorship.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.