By H.A. Hellyer
24 November 2014
As Tunisians heard the results of the first round of the presidential election last night, many felt trepidation and concern about the road ahead. There is good reason to – but much has been gained through Tunisia’s revolution already. Going forward, it’s important to remember that and ensure it is not lost.
Tunisia is where it all began. Of course, there were movements elsewhere in the Arab world that had been agitating for change for years but it was Tunisia’s revolutionary uprising in late 2010 and early 2011 that served as the spark which later led to a fire. While many Arab revolutionaries have been, indeed, burned through that process, with hitherto rather disastrous effects, Tunisia has not faltered – yet.
There have been many external and internal factors that have ensured that Tunisia’s revolution has not been undone or overcome. The toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt last year served as a stark warning to Ennahda, Tunisia’s then strongest political party which was, and remains, the Arab world’s most progressive and sensible Islamist group. The strength of the country’s labor movement and the weakness of its military (which nonetheless still plays a little noticeable political role) ensured the country’s transitional process managed to stabilize itself, without tearing itself to pieces.
Transitional Process Nears End
The transitional political process is now almost over. Three years after the revolutionary uprising began, Tunisians have a new constitution, the most progressive in the Arab world; a new parliament, with a broad variety of political voices, including anti-Islamists, Islamists, leftists and others; and soon, Tunisians will choose between two presidential candidates to lead their country in an electoral run-off.
That’s not a small accomplishment. Last time Tunisians went to the polls to elect a president, there was only one candidate – let alone two dozen, the top two of which will face off in a second round. Last time Tunisians went to the polls, the result was a resounding 99 percent – an electoral mandate few took seriously. This time, there is a genuine competition – all of this is something that Tunisians ought to be proud of.
That’s the good news. Here is the bad news. While Tunisians’ rifts and political fault lines have not resulted in severe conflicts resulting in mass deaths, unlike other countries in the region, they do still exist. The fear of mass polarization, which could yet cripple Tunisia’s revolution, remains. The parliamentary elections showed that the two largest forces in the country are almost polar opposites – Islamists and anti-Islamists, which is one fault line. In the presidential election, there is another fault line – support for the revolution, and support for the system it came to sweep away.
Beji Caid Essebsi, who came in first yesterday, but without a majority, is a part of that system which the revolution came to sweep away, having served in both of its ruling elites. He’s also prominent in the somewhat disparate anti-Islamist part of the political system – and his political party, Nidaa Tunis, managed to gain a plurality in recent parliamentary elections.
On the other end of the spectrum comes the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, who came in second. A left-wing human rights activist, he has a long and distinguished record of opposing the ancient regime – but also had the unenviable task of steering a country during the early stages of its transition. The difficulties of doing so would have been challenging for the shrewdest of politicians – and Marzouki wasn’t always that shrewd.
In any country, there are likely to be political battles. The most well-established democracies in the world bear testimony to that – the very system of democracy is meant to channel those differences into a system where those differences can be discussed and mediated without the state falling to pieces.
But Tunisia is not a democracy – at least, not yet. When we see not just one, but several cycles of peaceful exchanges of power in parliament and the presidency, then we can rest assured that Tunisia’s democratic institutions are sustainable and durable. As it stands right now, that’s a hope – but it isn’t a certainty.
Tunisia does not stand simply at the crossroads of continuing along a democratic, revolutionary path, where the goals of the revolution may be pursued, and the institutions of democratic governance reinforced. Rather, there is another particularity that Tunisia may yet show the way forward in.
In none of the Arab revolutionary uprisings was there production of new political ideological thought which could genuinely be said to emanate from a deep, fresh experience. On the contrary – generally speaking, all political forces offered were rather stale repetitions of spent political thought. That included Islamism, but it also included Nasserism and other ideological formations.
As of yet, it does not seem as though Tunisia is going to be the country that produces that new, inspirational political thought – something that can prove to be an alternative to the people of Tunisia and beyond, instead of forcing them to pick between various deficient forces. Perhaps that will change – but as of yet, there’s little sign of that.
But Tunisia does stand a very good chance indeed of proving that Islamists and non-Islamists can work together, under a system that is accepted by consensus and which provides rights and duties for all.
Marzouki, it should be re-emphasized, is not an Islamist at all – but he was able to work with Islamists, before and after the revolutionary uprising. The parliament has no tendency that is dominant – but if Nidaa Tunis enters into some sort of coalition with Ennahdha then the result would be a deeply powerful coalition of great diversity. At this point, so early in the development of Tunisia’s democratic institutions, that might be precisely what the country needs.
As for who sits in the presidency after Dec. 28 – it does matter, very much, who does win that race. If Marzouki was to win, then Nidaa Tunis would enjoy a plurality in parliament, but would have to contend with a political adversary in the presidency – which would force them to either work together, if in a limited fashion. Moreover, a Marzouki presidency is more likely to move forward on those revolutionary goals than an Essebsi presidency – tempered, no doubt, by a Nidaa Tunis plurality in parliament.
Tunisia does indeed stand at an interesting point in its revolutionary transition. Tunisians ought to be grateful that they have held it together thus far – and the international community should support them in maintaining the democratic path. There are many other paths they might have chosen – but this one, in the long run, will hopefully deliver far more than any other model in the region thus far.
That, in the final analysis, is the real win for Tunisia. Marzouki, particularly given a Nidaa Tunis parliamentary plurality, is likely the choice that assures a brighter future for Tunisia’s revolution. But Essebsi is hardly the deathblow to that revolution, either. Whoever wins on Dec. 28 will not have to worry most about parliament, after all but rather those who put both the parliament and the presidency into office – Tunisians themselves. It is they who ignited that revolutionary uprising; It is they who maintained it, all together, for the last three years and it is they who will, in the final analysis, be more relevant than any individual politician in taking it forward.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University.