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On Sunday, millions of Tunisians celebrated the second phase of their Jasmine revolution as many across the country waited in line for hours to participate in the country’s first free and fair election.
Amidst reports of a 70-80 percent voter turnout of young and old, women and men, moderate Islamists and secularists, the election symbolized a restoration of their dignity and freedom and the hope for a better future. At the same time, many in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world and the West watched the first fruits of the Arab Spring unfold. Early reports indicate that among the 80-plus political parties and independents, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, already has won 45 to 50 percent of the seats.
Ennahda’s emergence as a major political player has been enhanced by its history as the primary opposition movement and victim of the Ben Ali regime’s police state, by its strong organization, national appeal and platform, as well as the absence of strong alternative political parties. The legacy of Ben Ali’s Tunisia as that of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is a history and culture of authoritarianism which precluded the development of a strong multi-party system. The RCD like its Egyptian counterpart the NDP flourished in what was an essentially a one party state.
If the question in the past had been: Is Arab culture or Islam compatible with democracy? Today the key question is: “Are the old political and bureaucratic guard and “liberal” secularist elites as well Islamists ready for the transition to Arab democracies and political pluralism?”
Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak, secular elites and many Western governments warned that elections would enable Islamists to hijack democracy. Ironically, the afterglow of the Arab Spring is threatened today by the legacy of dictatorship and the resistance and antidemocratic agenda of entrenched elites and liberal secularist minority. Ten months after the revolution, the primary obstacles to the transition to democracy are holdovers from the Ben Ali regime and a “liberal secular” minority that is far from liberal in its politics and desire to impose (they would say protect) their power, privilege and way of life.
Transitioning to democracy
In contrast to Egypt where the transition to civilian rule has been delayed, Tunisia has moved more quickly and thus will be watched as a test case for the transformation of a successful popular overthrow of a regime into significant democratic change as well as for the electoral clout of Ennahda. In the first elections of the Arab Spring, Tunisians voted for a 217-member Constituent Assembly that will draft a new constitution and appoint a new caretaker government.
Several secular parties, such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), have trailed Ennahda with expected five to 15 percent of the vote. PDP leaders have stated their intention post elections to build a coalition that would deliberately exclude Ennahda even if it emerges as the chief vote getter. In contrast Rached Ghannoushi of Ennahda looks to Turkey as an example, a source of inspiration not necessarily “the” model. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) secular system of government emphasize separation of religion and the state which provides space for belief and unbelief, pluralism and equality of citizenship and recognition of Turkey’s Muslim history and culture.
Ennahda has advocated a government of national unity based on Tunisia’s Arab-Islamic identity and the desire to address common political, economic and social concerns. It speaks of government that is inclusive of all parties, secular or Islamist, accepting equality of citizenship, civil society and Tunisian women’s rights.
What about the United States and the European Union?
Many Tunisians express concerns about the role the international community may play behind the scene. Do they really accept the revolutions of the Arab Spring? How will the U.S. and the EU respond to the emergence of strong Islamist political parties like Ennahda or a Muslim Brotherhood? Will they attempt to influence or place conditions on the form of democracy or the position of Islamists? Will they only accept minor reforms versus deep structural political, economic and social reforms. Too often, many Western policymakers have seemed more worried about Islamists and their intentions once elected, than about remnants of dictatorships, state officials and institutions, who play a political polarizing role and appear reluctant to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, like Egypt’s, was not driven by religion or Islamists, but by longstanding political and economic issues and grievances. The uprisings revealed a broad-based inclusive movement, not led by a single individual or driven by a single secular or religious ideology that demanded an end to dictatorship, repression, rampant corruption, and the lack of dignity, opportunity and a sense of a future that many young people experienced. Tunisia now embarks on the next stage along its path to democratic reforms. Many challenges remain that will require a national political effort and coalition that cuts across political and ideological grounds. Tunisian elections show that the Tunisian people are ready to participate in democracy. It will now be most important to have the results of the election translated into action. All political leaders will need to emphasize positive steps for national unity that transcends the attempt to exclude anyone from participation in leadership.
John L. Esposito is a professor at Georgetown University and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.