By Mustafa Akyol
Tunisia, the North African country that initiated the “Arab Spring” in 2011, continues to be the only democratic success story in the Arab world. Last weekend, Tunisians freely and peacefully voted to change their government for the second time since the overthrow of their long-time dictator, Ben Ali, more than three years ago. (Notably, as political scientists point out, democracy begins to take root only when power is changed twice, not just once, via the ballots.) The count was still ongoing as I wrote these lines, but the apparent winner was not the Islamist En-Nahda Party that had won the previous elections in 2011. It was rather their secular rival: Nidaa Tounes.
Yet what really matters is not who won these elections. It is that Tunisians, as a nation, so far have been able to move forward with democracy, without devolving into civil war, such as in Syria, or military coup, such as in Egypt. Moreover, unlike Turkey, which has been yet unable to draft a much-hailed “civilian Constitution” due to political polarization, Tunisia accepted a fairly liberal national charter last February with a very broad national consensus.
The civility of the Tunisian political elite, including the wise and humble leader of En-Nahda, Rashid al-Ghannushi, has been key to this success. Instead of mutual demonization and chest-beating, which is so common in this part of the world, Tunisians have opted for concession and consensus?
Al-Ghannushi showed his moderation once again after last weekend’s elections, by congratulating the victory of his secular opponents. (He did not declare, for example, that Nidaa Tounes was a pawn of a Zionist conspiracy or some similar bilge, which is again so common in this part of the world.)
Back in Turkey, I have been watching this democratic experience in Tunisia with admiration, if not envy. As I wrote last February in an International New York Times piece, titled “Turkey’s Model Nation.” I said:
"Turkey sorely lacks the consensus-making skills that Tunisians so clearly possess. Turkish politics is poisoned by bitter fighting between leaders who view compromise as cowardice. Quarrelling political figures condemn one another for ‘high treason,’ and often resort to extravagant conspiracy theories to delegitimize opponents. The result is that confrontation is common, and agreement all too rare.”
I still think along these lines. Turkey’s true problem, I believe, is not its competing ideologies and identities. It is the arrogant, aggressive, rude, confrontational and paranoid political culture in which they all swim or sink."
None of this is to deny Tunisia’s obvious problems and Turkey’s obvious assets. Turkey’s economy is incomparably more advanced and its democratic experience is much older and deeper. Turkey is also lucky to lack the troubles caused by the Salafis, the ultra-orthodox and ultra-literalist Sunnis, in Tunisia. It is even perhaps fair to say that the liberal-leaning Islamic ideas of al-Ghannushi are more readily accepted among Turkey’s Islamists then those of Tunisia.
However, the same Islamists in Turkey also bitterly lack the civilized political language that their Tunisian counterparts have. That is why I keep saying, “they are too Turkish, not too Islamist.” That is also why I am increasingly convinced that if we need a “model” nation in the Muslim Middle East, it should be not Turkey, but Tunisia.