A supporter of President Beji Caid Essebsi celebrates his election in December. (Mohamed Messara/European Pressphoto Agency)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

Mohsen Marzouk is insistent: Tunisia, the small North African country that triggered the Arab Spring and is the only nation to emerge from the subsequent turmoil as a democracy, does not want to be unique. He cites an Arab proverb that he translates as saying, “The exception must yield to the rule”; if it comes to be seen as the Middle East’s anomaly, Tunisia’s experiment in pluralism and tolerance will be doomed.

For now, there is no getting around it: Tunisia is the only Arab state that has managed to peacefully balance the region’s competing political forces. Still, it needn’t remain alone. The often-bumpy transition it has lived through during the past four years has produced a road map that offers a way out of the civil wars and restored autocracies that followed the revolutions of 2011 in Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

The Tunisian solution will be on display this month when President Beji Caid Essebsi visits Washington for what the Tunisians hope will be a high-profile embrace by the Obama administration. Marzouk, a senior adviser to Essebsi who was in town last week to plan the visit, puts it bluntly: “Tunisia is a new member of the club of democracies, and we want to see the leader of the free world say it will do whatever it can to make our transition succeed.”

In fact, having devoted the past two years to cultivating detente with the region’s most aggressive and anti-Western dictatorship, President Obama could inject some balance in his Mideast policy with support for Tunisia. He could offer hope that the United States will pursue not only realpolitik diplomacy with Iran but also a strategy for resolving Mideast conflicts grounded in democracy.

So what is the Tunisian road map? Marzouk, who was a pro-democracy activist before the revolution, breaks it down into several steps. The first is ending what he calls the Arab “deficit of representativity,” in which the region’s principal ideological camps, ethnic groups or religious sects are denied places in the political system, usually by force. In the Sunni states of North Africa, he says “the challenge is to represent the two main trends — the trend of modernization and secularism and the trend of conservatism with religious references — within a code of conduct where there is no violence and there is acceptance of democratic rules of the game.”

That seems obvious — if difficult — enough. But then comes Tunisia’s twist, the product both of bitter competition between the secular Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennadha parties and the moderation of their leaders. As Marzouk, a founder of Nidaa Tounes, puts it, “one of the rules of the game during the time of transition must be consensus government, where there is no final winner and no final loser.” For at least a decade, he says, Tunisia’s big parties must agree to form governments together, regardless of the election outcomes.

In that sense, the biggest political breakthrough in Tunisia may not have been last fall’s free and fair elections for parliament and president, but Nidaa Tounes’s decision to invite Ennadha into its government. Ennadha, which led the first post-revolution elected government, had promised before the election to do the same if it won; it supported Nidaa Tounes’s choice for prime minister and named four members of the cabinet. “We realized that it’s impossible to exclude each other, so we had to find a way to make a deal,” Marzouk says.

Unity government, however, cannot be an end in itself. Like most Arab states, Tunisia grapples with sky-high youth unemployment and a legacy of state socialism. Having combined, the big political forces must use their authority to carry out what Marzouk calls “the soft revolution” — sweeping reforms of the economy and state administration. The first, a law allowing public-private infrastructure investments, is in front of the parliament, and Marzouk says 13 more are in line behind it, ending with reforms of subsidies and the labor code.

If these reforms can be pushed through, Tunisia’s leaders could prove they can accomplish what Arab autocrats have always shirked: reforms that inflict hardship on the population. “The coalition has no reason to exist if it is not going to push the whole society through the modernization process,” Marzouk says. Counterterrorism is the other half of the bargain; Tunisia’s political forces must prove they can both fight jihadists and address the social pathologies that produce them.

That’s where support from outside, starting with United States, comes in. While negotiating a deal that could provide Iran with an immediate payoff of $50 billion or more, the Obama administration so far has set aside a paltry $61 million to support Tunisia this year. The Arab world’s newest democracy isn’t expecting a Marshall Plan. But its attempt to lay out a path for Arab pluralism ought to be a U.S. strategic priority.

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