Tunisians have shattered the dogma that citizens of the Arab world must either accept a secular authoritarian status quo or submit to Islamist authoritarian rule.
When Tunisians rose up in peaceful protest from December 2010 to January 2011 to oust former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, they inspired Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians to take to the streets against their own autocratic leaders. None of the uprisings in any of those countries have ended in anything resembling democracy. Even in Egypt, the country whose path has most closely followed Tunisia’s, the secular/Islamist divide has led to bloodshed and trauma.
But in Tunisia, politicians with vastly different agendas managed to come together to approve a new constitution, with 200 out of 216 votes, on January 26.
“To avoid violence, Islamists should be integrated into the political system. The policy of eliminating and ignoring the Other has never been effective,” says Mohamed Bennour, a spokesman for the social-democratic Ettakatol party, which went into coalition with the Islamists. “A large part of [the Islamist party] Ennahda rejects the Other, but so do many members of the secularist parties.”
The new Constitution is not secularist, but neither does it impose an Islamist state. It combines many of the progressive values of the previous regime with more democratic rights and freedoms. The right to free healthcare and free education is guaranteed. Equality between the sexes is preserved; the legal system will not be derived from Sharia; torture is outlawed; and there’s a greater separation of powers than in the past. As far as religion is concerned, the Constitution remains ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, but that was the price of consensus. Many battles have been left to fight another day.
“I think so far we succeeded to find this common ground between Islamists and secularists,” says Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda party. “We have to look for a marriage between the two models.”
The birth of Tunisia’s democratic republic was all the more symbolic in that it occurred in the very same week that Egypt lurched ever further into military dictatorship, with the army giving its blessing to Field Marshal Abdul-Fatteh el-Sisi’s likely presidential bid.
“I think this sends a very powerful message,” says Rory McCarthy, a doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, regarding the new Constitution. McCarthy, who is researching Islamist activism in Tunisia, adds: “Particularly when violence and instability have gripped the other Arab Spring countries.”
Tunisia’s exceptional success is at least partly attributable to the fact that it has never drawn the same degree of attention from the outside world as most other countries in the region. While the uprisings in Libya and Syria were quickly internationalized, Tunisia’s uprising and subsequent political transition have been overwhelmingly organic. The small North African nation has neither vast amounts of oil or gas, nor a shared border with Israel. Multinational oil executives were not working behind the scenes to better mold the contours of the new republic to suit their own interests. “I think the West has shown incredible double standards in the way it’s said it has tried to promote democracy in the Middle East,” McCarthy observes.