Berlin, 30.01.2014

Tunisia’s democratization: Learning from the disasters of others

Isabelle Werenfels
Isabelle Werenfels

The Tunisian democratization process is also an outcome of negative developments in other Arab states. At the same time, the Tunisian success sends important signals to other states in the region. European politicians should make use of these learning processes, says Isabelle Werenfels.

In early 2014, Tunisia again is rightly considered to be the democratic frontrunner in the Arab World and the last remaining hope of the Arab Spring. Its new constitution, passed by the national constituent assembly on January 26, is unparalleled in terms of political and religious freedoms, the relationship between religion and politics, and gender equality.

Perhaps even more important, the small North African country exemplifies how a national dialogue process, supported by persistent civil society intermediaries and international benignity, can reach a broad consensus on the fundamentals of the new political system even in a politically highly polarized society. In a region, where political conflict is usually »solved« by force or repression, Tunisia impressively demonstrates that the process of negotiation might be tough, but is prone to produce more democratic and presumably more sustainable results.

The people and regimes in the entire Arab world will keep an eye on Tunisia: The people because they consider it as a role model. The rulers because they see their power threatened by the first real Arab alternative to their authoritarian systems.

At the same time and paradoxically, the positive developments in the Tunisian democratization process are a direct result of the negative developments in other states in the region, namely Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Lessons Learned from Egypt: Government and Opposition Engage in Dialogue

The removal of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 und the following massive repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt acted as a wake-up call for key actors in Tunisia. This is particularly true for the Islamist Ennahda party, the dominant party in the former government coalition. Ennahda, throughout its history, has always been more progressive and tolerant in its vision of the political and social order than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Still, the Ennahdha–led government made efforts to islamize the social sphere and sought to enshrine Islam as the state religion in the constitution.

After Morsi’s removal, representatives of Ennahda publicly expressed their concern about a similar development in their own country – and drew their lessons. They engaged seriously in the national dialogue process, and showed a surprising willingness to compromise as the constitution was drafted. What is more, Ennahda – due to the pressure from the street and the parliamentary opposition – declared that it will resign in the national interest, to make room for a »caretaker government« until the next elections (probably in autumn 2014). And they kept their word. Thus, for the first time in the Arab world, an Islamist-dominated government which rose to power through elections relinquished power.

The Tunisian opposition has also drawn lessons from Egypt. At first it felt encouraged to call for the toppling of the Islamist led-government. But the bloody confrontations in Egypt convinced key opposition figures, such as former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, to enter into direct and serious dialogue with the leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Moreover, the rise of Jihadist groups in Libya, in the Sahel region, and in Syria had an impact on Tunisia’s domestic political process. Initially, the Ennahda government more or less turned a blind eye to potentially militant Tunisian Salafis. Also, no obstacles were put in the way of young Tunisians departing for Syria to join the battle there. Yet, Ennahda again – even if hesitantly – drew its lessons from homegrown militants’ linking up with international Jihadi actors and engaging in violent attacks against Tunisian security forces. By now, the Islamist party dissociates itself explicitly from the potentially militant Salafi camp. Classifying the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organization in August 2013 was but one example of the government’s new strategy.

Especially the increasing anarchy in Libya, where weapons circulate freely and Jihadists can move undisturbed, further reinforced the readiness for dialogue between the government and the opposition in Tunisia. With the progressive falling apart of Libya, Tunisia’s political elite as well as important social forces became acutely aware that only by standing together they would be strong enough to face the challenges of building solid state institutions in a difficult regional environment.

Lessons from Egypt in Morocco and Algeria

Apart from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria have also drawn lessons from the events in Egypt, although not necessarily in the sense of democratization. For example, the Moroccan King has used the events in Egypt to weaken the Islamists ruling party PJD through a cabinet reshuffle. The PJD, probably with an eye on Egypt, has accepted this more or less uncomplainingly. In Algeria the Muslim Brotherhood criticized the reception of the new Egyptian Foreign Minister. But, even though they decided to boycott the Algerian presidential elections in April, their oppositional rhetoric in the domestic sphere is subdued these days – particularly in Algeria with its recent civil war, Islamists have a strong interest in demarcating themselves from their violent »brothers«.

Such political learning processes are not new. But thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and the intense media coverage of pan-Arab television stations, the Arab public is informed about events in other states faster and better than ever before. This has increased the pressure on political elites to act. Lessons have to be drawn faster – this can be an opportunity, as Tunisia has shown.

Obviously one cannot presume that political actors in the Arab world will draw conclusions from the developments in the region considered to be the »right« ones from a Western democracy-oriented perspective, as Tunisia did. But particularly for Western (foreign) policy actors, it is important to act in accordance with these fast learning and adaption processes. In the short run, the Tunisian way may not be an export hit. However, if Arab populations, for instance in Egypt, see that democratization in Tunisia continues to progress thanks to the inclusive national dialogue and that such progress leads to substantial European support for the economy this may in the medium term act as an incentive to also pursue the path of dialogue.

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