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Could Tunisia’s National Dialogue model ever be replicated?

FILE: Tunisian mediators Wided Bouchamaoui, Houcine Abbassi, Abdessattar ben Moussa and Mohamed Fadhel Mahmoud. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

If the story of the Arab political rebellions is one of failed leadership, Tunisia’s story is an epic tale of a political class that forges a remarkable — if still fragile — democratic transition. This victory earned the four leaders of the National Dialogue the Nobel Peace Prize. Cause to celebrate, the prize also offers a timely opportunity to reflect on the wider question of how and why elite bargains or “pact-making” succeed or fail to advance transitions.

Is pact-making a product of local or national conditions — a happy accident of a specific history — or does the success or failure stem from broader or “exogenous” logic that transcends time and place?

In a practical or policy-related sense, what is at stake is whether the Tunisian experience is unique, and unlikely to be repeated or emulated, or whether it offers wider lessons that can be applied to other national dialogues.

[Tunisian group wins Nobel Peace Prize]

I believe that the success of national dialogue in Tunisia is rooted in forces that were deeply embedded in the soil of one country, particularly the absence of a politicized military and the presence of a massive domestic force, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the leading member of the quartet. The UGTT acted as both a third party arbiter that claimed to exist above the political fray and a key actor implicated in the very conflicts it tried to mediate. This has no parallel in the Middle East, or as far as I know, in any other national context. While Tunisia and its National Dialogue offer an inspiring example for the region, given such unique circumstances, it is unlikely to become a model that can be easily emulated elsewhere.

Before considering the Tunisian case, we need to conceptualize the role of dialogues or “pact-making.” Taking a page out of “The Godfather,” we might say that this dynamic pivots around the transition from autocratic to democratic “protection rackets.” In the former, autocracies protect groups who fear that their political, social or even physical survival might be undermined by a move to free elections and majoritarian rule. In the Middle East, vulnerable minorities — based on economic, religious, sectarian or ideological cleavages — often depended on autocracies to shield them from their real or imagined adversaries. In any genuine democratic transition, the key challenge is for leaders to negotiate rules, procedures and institutions that make it very unlikely that electoral winners will use the ballot to disenfranchise their rivals. By minimizing the fear factor, national dialogues can provide an important mechanism for moving from autocratic to democratic protections.

Scholars who think about national dialogues through a broad analytical lens emphasize a central impediment to pact-making: namely, the tendency of all forces to resist making any concessions because they fear that their rivals will not reciprocate or, if they do signal readiness for a deal, will break it the moment the opportunity presents itself. Given such perceptions, no party is ready to risk their hide for a deal. This classic “collective action” problem is especially hard to overcome when there is a significant disparity of power between the key players. That is why serious pact-making talks usually require some kind of “mutually hurting stalemate” that compels rivals to conclude that they would be better off risking a deal than suffering under the status quo.

[Why the Nobel peace prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, in one map]

This kind of “rationalist” analysis, as it is known among political scientists, is alluring because it does not depend on the peculiarities of culture, religion or ideology. All we need to prove is that the parties have learned from repeated iterations of violent conflict is that they cannot win by fighting and must choose dialogue and compromise. Under these conditions, pact-making springs from a means/end pragmatic calculation — a “second best solution” — rather than any philosophical or normative choice deriving from a particular national historical terrain.

But while this kind of universalist analysis has the advantages of analytical simplicity or parsimony, it suffers from its failure to consider the deeper contextual conditions that might foster stalemate and negotiations in the first place. Indeed, it may be that all the specifics of national context — even slippery variables such as culture, ideology or identity — are crucial. If this is the case, then a purely rationalist analysis shorn from immediate cultural, social or ideological context doesn’t get us very far at all.

The advent of Tunisia’s successful national dialogue is rooted in structural factors and forces the likes of which have few, if any, parallels in the region. First, it is a relatively small country, with 11 million people in comparison, to say Egypt, with its 90 million. Second, Tunisia has a relatively large and literate middle class based in the coastal/Tunis region, and a strong political elite that is a subset of that class. Third, in the ’60’s, Tunisia’s military was professionalized and depoliticized. Thus, contending elite groups could not go the Egyptian way by looking to the military for a resolution of their conflicts. In Tunisia, rival groups have longed faced a basic choice between talking or fighting.

From this logic emerged an elaborate system of elite conflict management and negotiation that endured from the late ’60’s straight through the era of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Take a close look at Tunisia’s National Dialogue — as a team of Tunisian scholars did in a recently published book —and you will see that the formal institutions that constituted National Dialogue were one part of a more complex story. Indeed, in the three years following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia’s leaders engaged in series of overlapping formal and informal dialogues pursued in different arenas by elites from rival groups — especially secular and Islamists — most of whom were already familiar with the logic and practice of elite negotiation and conflict management.

This is not to say that the formal National Dialogue was just one of many equal players in a crowded field. Launched in May 2013, the crucial National Dialogue emerged as the most effective arena for elite talks, helping Islamists and secular forces overcome an increasingly violent stalemate. These negotiations came to a head in late summer, when the National Dialogue secured a “Road Map” that allowed Tunisia to exit a deepening crisis in late Summer 2013. Precipitated by the assassination of a leading leftist member of the National Constituent Assembly, the deal set the stage for the resignation of the Islamist-led “Troika” government in September 2013, the ensuing creation of a new caretaker government of “experts” and a calendar for sequencing parliamentary and presidential elections.  In addition, the National Dialogue helped a key committee in the Constituent Assembly reach an agreement on a new constitution – a crucial event without which the Road Map itself would never been implemented.

But while helping to mediate these agreements, the National Dialogue leaders were hardly non-partisan actors. On the contrary, the four groups of the “Quartet” were animated by a shared distrust of Islamist forces and thus sought to rebalance the political field in ways that would compel leaders of the Nahda Party to compromise in the face of hard-line resistance in the party’s own ranks. To exercise this influence, UGTT mobilized thousands of its loyal members in the streets — or threatened to do so when the dialogue seemed to reach an impasse — while sustaining its role as the leading arbiter of negotiations. That it could walk this fine and necessarily ambiguous line was a tribute to the political will and skill of many leaders, especially UGTT leader Hocine Abbasi, who leveraged the full weight of the UGTT’s to push all groups to accept the September 2013 Road Map. However, while Islamist and secular groups both made concessions, it was the Nahda Party that swallowed the bitterest pill, namely the dissolving of a coalition government that, after all, had been democratically elected. Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi surely knew that unless his party relented, the UGTT might have carried out its threat of a national strike and Tunisia might just have fallen into mounting national conflict and violence.

The Tunisian story also shows the success of the National Dialogue was not preordained. The very forces that overcame their differences were caught in a whirlwind of improvised escalation that could have ended very badly. The August 2013 specter of a military coup in Egypt helped to focus the attention of all the key players in Tunisia, underscoring the fortuitously positive effects of regional and national events and forces. Tunisia offers a potent and inspiring lesson for the entire region of what can be achieved when leaders compromise. It is a cautionary tale and important example, but given its exceptional origins, even with its well earned Nobel Prize, Tunisia’s National Dialogue cannot easily serve as a model for the region.

Daniel Brumberg is co-director of democracy and governance studies at Georgetown University and a special adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.