Tunisia may have accomplished a democratic transition, but it has yet to address the challenges that gave rise to the revolution and which could yet “undermine the future of democracy,” observers suggest. The country’s Nahda party may also be confirming the “counterintuitive” argument that Islamists are “the key to more democratic, liberal politics” in the the region, says a leading analyst.
“Analysts often downplay the importance of Tunisia, overshadowed as it is by its much larger and strategically weightier neighbor, Egypt,” celebrated political scientist Alfred Stepan writes.
“But since Tunisia is so far the only Arab country to have met the four requirements of a democratic transition, analysts and activists alike should pay it more attention, especially for its example of how secular and religious actors can negotiate new rules and form coalitions,” he contends, writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy,
The country has secured a democratic transition because it has met all four of the essential requirements: namely, “sufficient agreement” on “procedures to produce an elected government;” a government that comes to power as “the direct result of a free and popular vote;” this government’s de facto possession of “the authority to generate new policies;” and the that “the executive, legislative and judicial power generated by the new democracy does not have to share power with other bodies de jure” (such as military or religious leaders).
“We can easily find truly disturbing commentary and actions by members of the Egyptian Brotherhood, or by the Tunisian Rachid Ghannouchi, the intellectual guru behind the ruling Nahda Party,” writes Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“But we can just as easily find words and deeds that ought to make us consider the possibility that these men are neither Ernest Röhm and his fascist Brownshirts nor even religious versions of secular autocrats,” he argues. “Rather, they are cultural hybrids trying to figure out how to combine the best of the West (material progress and the absence of brutality in daily life) without betraying their faith and pride.”
“What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries,” says Gerecht, author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East. “As counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.”
Tunisia’s secular and religious actors were able to collaborate in large part due to the dictatorial rule of Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali, says Amor Boubakri from the University of Sousse.
“The brutal oppression wielded by Ben Ali’s regime forced Islamists and secular militants to cooperate and unify means in the struggle against the dictatorship,” he notes:
Consequently, the various political sensibilities and trends have learned to work together in mutual respect and tolerance. It is rare indeed to see in the Arab region secular political parties accept Islamist movements, or to see Islamists and communists fighting together against dictatorship….The seeds of a genuine democratic and peaceful coexistence between the actors of a future democracy were already (albeit unconsciously) planted by Ben Ali himself. In other words, the ingredients for a constructive political life exist in Tunisian society.
Tunisia is the Arab world’s most likely candidate to follow the AKP’s Turkish model of reconciling Islam and democratic modernity, according to David Pollock and Soner Cagaptay, analysts with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In Tunisia, as in Turkey, a relatively moderate Islamist party won a majority in a free election, but still has to compete with secular parties and social groups. Extreme fundamentalists are very rare. Tunisia’s population is fairly well educated, with a large middle-income segment. The dominant Islamist party supports the private sector, including tourism and other international economic lifelines, and is cultivating the West. So Tunisia is the best prospect to follow Turkey’s footsteps. Tellingly, Tunisia’s ruling al-Nahda is the only Arab party that says it wants to emulate the Turkish model.
Fundamentalists may be relatively rare, but they’re still active, and some Islamists are evidently not yet reconciled to the new democratic dispensation.
Salafists this week assaulted employees of Tunisia’s state TV, leaving five wounded and prompting demonstrations of support from secular groups.
“We came to demonstrate our solidarity with the journalists and defend the freedom of the press,” said Nejib Chebbi, founder of the liberal Progressive Democratic Party.
Despite such incidents, Tunisia’s transition has been characterized by its adherence to a relationship between religion and politics that follows a pattern of “twin tolerations,” Stepan writes:
The first toleration is that of religious citizens toward the state. It requires that they accord democratically elected officials the freedom to legislate and govern without having to confront denials of their authority based on religious claims—such as the claim that “Only God, not man, can make laws.” The second toleration requires that laws and officials must permit religious citizens, as a matter of right, to freely express their views and values within civil society, and to freely take part in politics, as long as religious activists and organizations respect other citizens’ constitutional rights and the law.
“When considering Muslim countries, too many commentators focus on the ‘missing factors’ that they see as necessary for democracy but lacking in these countries,” Stepan notes:
Much of what they see as “missing,” however, draws from the repertoire of what these observers think, rightly or wrongly, actually existed in this or that Western country when democracy emerged there. A better and more imaginative approach might be to look for actions and events—whether deliberate or fortuitous—that may aid the emergence of “twin tolerations–friendly” practices. And it is important to be aware that their emergence does not presuppose the need for “exclusive humanism” and aggressive secularism to triumph, or for a decline in religious participation, or for a Muslim-world variant of the Protestant Reformation (and its follow-on wars of religion?) to transpire, or for uniformed authoritarians to come along and impose secularism as in Kemalist Turkey.
In the century or so leading up to independence in 1956, Tunisia showed signs of movement toward the “twin tolerations” model, but the modernizing autocrat Bourguiba disrupted all that by imposing authoritarian secularism from above. Worse still, he created an objectively pro-authoritarian constituency of frightened secularists that served as a source of support for both his own and his successor’s dictatorial rule.
It should be counted as all the more remarkable, then, that as early as 2003, secular and religious opposition activists were agreeing on a common program for “the day after Ben Ali” that to some extent drew upon their shared useable past to imagine a democratic future. With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy, Tunisia was surprisingly well situated to make a good showing at the work of democratic transition when the moment to undertake that work came around.
One of the reasons Tunisia’s transition has been successfully negotiated is the role played by civil society groups and labor unions, Boubakri writes:
In the first line of resistance, we find mainly the General Tunisian Union of Labor, or UGTT, that is a unique workers’ union in Tunisia that includes all professional categories except the liberal professions. The UGTT has been in existence since 1945 and has always played an important role in modern Tunisia. It fought for social justice and defended the material and moral interests of all categories of workers without exception. The most important role assumed by the UGTT was obviously the promotion and protection of the middle class, the real motor of political change and reform in modern Tunisia.
But the new government’s neglect of the social agenda is raising questions about the prospects for “a genuine transition into a real and sustainable democratic regime,” Boubakri argues.
“Marginalized people need tangible transformation to believe that democracy will be useful for them.”