|By Rami G. Khouri|
"Tunisia is where the Arab uprisings and revolutions started in December 2010, and Tunisia remains the country to watch closely to see if the promise of those historic developments will one day lead to a credible pluralistic and constitutional democracy. Developments taking place these days have brought Tunisia to the forefront of those countries that are at a critical junction in their transitions and facing important tests related to three core factors: The activism of the citizenry, the true ideology of Islamists and the ability of civil society and opposition forces to channel national politics toward a genuine new democratic era.
I expect Tunisia to succeed in this historic transformation from autocracy to democracy, but such a change will not happen quickly or smoothly, as we know from transitions to democracy across the whole world. Egypt has already shown that progress toward democracy – comprising citizen-based popular legitimacy, self-determination and sovereignty – occurs erratically in those Arab countries that have embarked on such an epic transition. The biggest among several differences between Tunisia and Egypt is that the armed forces in Egypt are deeply and chronically immersed in the conduct of governance, and in fact have directly or indirectly managed the affairs of state since 1952. The armed forces’ current management of the second attempt at a constitutional transition in Egypt mirrors this unfortunate pervasive reality of the modern Arab security state, but it is doubly troubling because of the apparent widespread public support for the armed forces’ open assumption of power once more.
Tunisia is very different in this respect, which allows us to get a better picture of how one country can attempt to manage its autocracy-to-democracy transition by relying primarily on the evolution of, and the balance of power among, the range of political actors in society; these include mainstream Islamists, more fundamentalist Salafists, nationalists, secularists, progressives, remnants of the old guard and civil society organizations.
This week’s dramatic developments have seen large street demonstrations by opposition forces and labor unions that want the Islamist Ennahda-led coalition government to resign and make way for a transitional government of technocrats, as agreed in a national accord negotiated in recent months. Seven policemen were also killed by hard-line takfiri terrorists whose emergence in Tunisia mirrors similar troubling signs across much of the Arab world. The government recently named one of these groups, Ansar al-Shariah, as a terrorist organization and cracked down on them in a big way, including arresting over 300 members. The emergence of political violence on the Tunisian scene, including the assassination of two opposition members earlier this year, is one of the dangers that we can anticipate in situations where a central government does not exercise effective security controls, as has happened in parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh sparked the latest demonstrations when he did not resign as agreed this week, and instead declared Ennahda’s readiness in principle to step down – but only after the completion of the new constitution, the establishment of an electoral commission, and designation of a firm parliamentary election date. Such stalling or back-peddling by Ennahda troubles many Tunisians and other Arabs, who ask whether this Islamist party is truly committed to a democratic culture that reflects the national consensus, or whether it only wants to engage in politics according to its own priorities and rules. This moment will clarify if Ennahda is any more sophisticated or pragmatic than the politically immature Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
This test of Ennahda’s true colors is one of the important developments now taking place. The other is the repeated public expression of the wishes of masses of citizens who insist on completing the transition to constitutional democracy. Demonstrators press Larayedh’s Ennahda-led government both to have it honor its commitment to resign in favor of a technocratic transitional government, but also to express disappointment with Ennahda’s inability to achieve any significant progress on the big issues facing the country, including completing the constitution and the democratic transition, improving the economy or ensuring security. These are the same issues that generated mass public opposition to Mohammad Morsi’s Islamist government in Egypt, which was equally incompetent in governing and was thrown out of power after a year in office.
The Tunisian demonstrations take place exactly two years after the first free and democratic elections were held following the overthrow of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. They are worth following closely because they affirm what I believe to be the two most significant developments that have occurred in the uprisings era since December 2010: The birth of Arab citizens who assume they have rights and act in a public and political manner to achieve those rights, and the slow emergence of a public political sphere in which all actors can express themselves, engage each other, and vie for power legitimately, peacefully and democratically."