In January Tunisia toppled the first dictator of the Arab Spring. Last month it held its first election. Both events, mostly, went peacefully. That is perhaps the country’s greatest achievement. There are others.
In less than five months Tunisia’s freshly minted election commission (ISIE) registered more than 100 political parties, oversaw a 70 percent turnout and confirmed results deemed free, fair and transparent by local and foreign monitors.
There were glitches. Violence flared in Sidi Bouzid after the ISIE banned the party of the winning local candidate for financial irregularities (it had allegedly received cash from the outlawed ruling party of the ousted Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali). Sidi Bouzid was where the vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself and thence the region ablaze in protest at being poor and powerless.
But the political outcome was definitive. The Islamist Nahda (Renaissance) party won 41 percent of the vote, or three times as many votes as its nearest rival, the secular Congress for the Republic (CPR).
The Islamists have ninety seats in a 217-member Constituent Assembly. This will draft a new Constitution, appoint an interim government and set new elections, probably in 2013. Rachid Ghannouchi, Nahda’s septuagenarian leader, says he wants to govern through a national unity coalition, and hopes a new Constitution can be written “within a year.”
Nahda’s success was due to a well-funded campaign that reached every hamlet in Tunisia. The party drew kudos from years of resistance to the Ben Ali dictatorship. And it promulgated an inclusive politics that vowed to match Tunisia’s “Arab and Muslim heritage” with a pledge to protect its modern ethos, including rights for women that are the most advanced in the Middle East. “We want to enter modernity as Muslims, not unbelievers,” said Ghannouchi.
This suggests a new kind Islamist politics that works within Westernized notions of citizenship, rather than against them, the usual cry of political Islam in the Arab world. How well that politics works out will be Tunisia’s democratic lodestar, not only for itself, but the region. It faces two challenges.
Nahda leaders say their priority now is not faith, but jobs. After ten months of revolutionary upheaval, the economy has tanked, prompting often violent protests against penury, particularly in Tunisia’s fly-blown interior. Among those under 30—the class and generation that drove Ben Ali from power—joblessness is 23 percent. Tourism, supplying one in every five jobs, is barren. Growth is less than 1 percent.
The challenge is how to revive the economy while charting a course that will gradually redistribute wealth away from the richer coast to an aggrieved interior. Nahda’s first move has been to reassure local and foreign capital that Tunisia is “safe” for investment, particularly in the “strategic” tourist sector that, the Islamists vow, will be unharmed by any bans on alcohol or bikinis.
But its second move has been to invite into coalition the humanist CPR party and socialist Ettakol party, both of which want to tilt Tunisia’s deeply unequal society in favor of the poor. How the new government combines growth with fairness remains key, especially for a people demanding both.