Sunday was a big election day around the world: Brazil was deciding whether to keep or oust its stumbling socialist president; Ukraine was choosing a new parliament in the teeth of Russian aggression. Nowhere did the voting matter more, however, than in tiny Tunisia — the North African state where the Arab revolutions began nearly four years ago, and the only place where civil war or a renewed dictatorship has not been the result.
Tunisia is the apparent anomaly in a Middle East where the terrorist Islamic State and its authoritarian rivals battle over the carcasses of Syria and Iraq. In January it adopted a progressive constitution balancing power between the parliament chosen Sunday, which will confirm a prime minister, and a president to be popularly elected next month.
The country’s Islamist Ennahda party, which won a plurality in the first post-revolution election and guided the subsequent transition, competed for votes with a range of secular competitors, including several parties led by senior figures in the former dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But Ennahda’s leaders are calling for the formation in the new parliament of a unity coalition including all of those parties — and it has chosen not to contest next month’s presidential election.
“We learned a lesson from Egypt,” where the election of an uncompromising Islamist led to a military coup, said Lotfi Zitoun, a senior Ennahda figure I spoke to last week. “We decided that at this stage of the democratic process we need to unite the country and not to polarize the political scene.”
That strategy and its visionary architect, Rachid Ghannouchi, unquestionably look exceptional in the scorched-earth Arab landscape. But is Tunisia, where Ghannouchi is promising “the first Arab democracy . . . by the end of this year,” really anomalous?
In some fundamental ways, it’s not. Like most of the Middle East, Tunisia has been left behind by globalization. It’s plagued with a stifling state bureaucracy, a poor education system and a generation of youth unable to find work — exemplified by Mohammed Bouazizi, the disenchanted fruit seller whose self-immolation on Dec. 17, 2010, touched off the first protests of what was once called the “Arab spring.” Unemployment is above 15 percent.
Tunisia also has its share of Islamic extremists. Terrorist groups are waging an insurgency from the western mountains. As many as 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State or al-Qaeda affiliates.
Some Tunisians blame the surge of extremism on Ennahda, or on the country’s democratic opening. In so doing they echo the propaganda of Egypt’s restored military regime, which, like the old autocracies of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, seeks to portray itself and Islamic State-style theocracy as the only political alternatives in the region.
In fact, as Ghannouchi and his followers have been pointing out, it was the old regimes that created the conditions for extremism by denying political outlets outside the mosque. Tunisia’s terrorists first sprouted during the Ben Ali era, said Zitoun: “The difference is that during the dictatorship nobody knew about it.”
The Obama administration, which has embraced the canard that U.S. security interests conflict with democracy promotion, believes it is only embracing realism when it calls Egypt’s new strongman, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, “a key partner for the United States.” President Obama went out of his way to meet Sissi at the United Nations in September, but neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry made time for Ghannouchi when he came to Washington the same month.
It’s not hard to predict that Sissi will prove them wrong. With his violent repression of both secular and Muslim opposition, his nationalist hostility to the West and his embrace of pharaonic projects such as an expansion of the Suez Canal, Sissi is a dim repeat of Egypt’s 1950s-vintage dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The idea — fervently embraced by Kerry — that he will lead Egypt to economic modernization is about as realistic as Kerry’s previous conviction that an Israeli-Palestinian peace was close at hand.
The more interesting question is whether Ghannouchi’s strategy is worth betting on. I asked Zitoun whether a government composed of every party in parliament would be able to work effectively. “Actually, all the political class agree that we have to face our economic problems and that we have to face the terrorists,” he calmly replied. “We all agree that we have to protect democracy and get rid of the legacy of the dictatorship. That is a good start for a coalition government.”
It is, in fact, a coalition and a platform that every other Arab state desperately needs — but that only Tunisia, with its embrace of democracy, can deliver.