Is Tunisia the first democratic Arab country?

by Justine Dodgen

The Islamist Ennahda party holds a large rally in the Mediterranean port city of Sfax in southeast Tunisia. Photo credit: Atlantic Council via photopin cc
The Islamist Ennahda party holds a large rally in the Mediterranean port city of Sfax in southeast Tunisia. Photo credit: Atlantic Council via photopin cc

On October 26, Tunisia held free and fair elections to choose a new representative parliament for the first time since the Jasmine Revolution occurred in 2011. More than half of Tunisia’s population voted among thousands of candidates from more than 100 political parties for the People’s Assembly’s 217 seats.

The Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) party, a secular party that ran on an explicitly anti-Islamist platform, won the most seats, winning 85 seats and the right to select the prime minister and lead a coalition government. The Ennahda party, which held the majority in parliament for the past three years on a moderate Islamism platform, came in second with 69 seats. With presidential elections scheduled for November 23, Tunisia is entering a new period of state-building, and many are calling Tunisia the first democratic county in the Arab region.

Four years ago, demonstrations erupted across Tunisia to demand the resignation of President Ben Ali, the leader of one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa region. Central to the demonstrations was frustration and anger over issues of widespread corruption, poor living conditions and lack of freedoms. (Open Society) This revolution came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution and sparked uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, collectively called the Arab Spring.

Since removing Ali from power, Tunisia has adopted the most progressive constitution in the Arab region, supporting both women’s rights and religious freedoms with 93% approval from the country’s diverse political parties.

Strolling past political campaign posters hung along the wall. Photo credit: boellstiftung via photopin cc
Strolling past political campaign posters hung along the wall. Photo credit: boellstiftung via photopin cc

Many analysts have been speculating about why Tunisia has succeeded in making a democratic transition while the other Arab Spring countries, notably Egypt, have not. One frequent argument is that Tunisia’s Islamist parties are more tolerant than those in other Arab countries. Fareed Zakaria points out that the Ennahda party has not tried to institute sharia, has “declared its respect” for more progressive laws on women’s rights, and- perhaps most importantly- voluntarily gave up power earlier this year to a national unity government after facing public protests.

Soumaya Ghannoushi, daughter of Rachid Ghannouchi, co-founder of the Ennahda party, argues that Tunisia’s success is due to its cohesive society, which lacks the ethnic, religious, or ideological divisions that have led to conflict in other Arab counties. She also notes that the population is largely urbanized, having begun modernizing in the late 19th century, with a large middle class and active civil society that may make the county more receptive to democratic ideas.

Others have supported this view, arguing that Tunisian politicians have more public spaces for reaching voters outside of religion, such as labor unions and civic associations. The military’s deference to civil institutions has also aided political parties in seeking a balance of power and consensus with turning to force.

photo credit: United Nations Development Programme via photopin cc
UNDP Summer University Graduate Sumayya Arnouni proudly showing inked finger after voting in Tunisia Constituent Assembly Elections Credit : Noeman AlSayyad. Photo credit: United Nations Development Programme via photopin cc

Tunisia is not without challenges as it heads into this new phase of governance. Youth unemployment is nearly 30%, the assassination of two liberal opposition leaders has caused political divides to deepen, and Tunisia faces a looming terrorist threat with several attacks in recent months and more than 3,000 Tunisians departing to Syria to join ISIS. The Ennahda party recently stated that it would not be endorsing a candidate in the presidential elections, causing many to speculate that Nidaa Tounes will be the party behind both the prime minister and the president. It will be crucial then for the new government to create a political balance that allows for consensus if it is to succeed in tackling pressing economic and security issues.

it will be crucial for the new government to create a political balance that allows for consensus

Tunisia’s elections and the new government will be significant not only for the country but for the wider region, as they may signal a new era for these countries in which democracy can take root and withstand the challenges of corruption, terrorism, and economic instability. As far as Tunisia has already succeeded, it has demonstrated that there is not an inherent contradiction between democracy and Islam. Rachid Gannouchi argues that “the Middle East can indeed achieve stability and peace through a process of democratic reconciliation and consensus,” by following in Tunisia’s footsteps.

The United States and other world leaders should watch these unfolding events and offer support to Tunisia as it seeks to bolster its economy and increase security. While the crises in neighboring countries such as Syria and Iraq claim immediate attention, in the longer-term Tunisia’s democratic success could hold greater significance and have a more lasting impact on the region. Tunisia has the chance to be an example of good governance to the region, and that is something we should all support.

in the longer term Tunisia’s democratic success could hold great significance and have a lasting impact on the region