Tunisia’s Success After the Arab Spring

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Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Beginning in 2010, the Arab Spring sparked the downfall of four major regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. First to leave power was Tunisia’s longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He and his wife fled to Saudi Arabia after many of his military and political allies did not back him in face of increasing protests. Shortly thereafter Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, eventually replaced by the first freely elected leader in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of Yemen, fled to nearby Saudi Arabia after protestors and gunmen took to the streets in the capitol city of Sana’a. Lastly, rebel forces captured and killed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi while he was trying to flee from the crumbling capitol of Tripoli. Despite the promising chances for change in the Arab Spring countries, some fared better than others in the aftermath of the revolution.

Egypt faces many challenges ahead in easing the religious-secularist divide and keeping the military out of politics. Libya has descended into a state of lawlessness, the only real security forces being local militias. Yemen has been plagued by deadly terrorist attacks while stagnating in a political transition. It seems as if Tunisia, despite the slow pace of reforms, has the best prospects for prosperity after the Arab Spring. Currently, secularist and Islamic political leaders are engaged in a clear dialogue. In other words, both sides are “sitting at the negotiating table.”

So why has Tunisia succeeded while others have failed? The answer may lie in three main arenas of political activity: the constitution-writing process, the choices of elites, and the role of the military. Tunisian Islamist and secularist political leaders were able to come to a compromise on the wording of some hotly contested sections of the constitution. Among them was the challenge of how to incorporate religion into the founding document. Two years and two assassinations after the initial constitution was written, the Islamist Ennahda party made a few concessions in this crucial section, breaking the stalemate and allowing the constitution-approving process to go forward. As the New York Times reports, the new Tunisian constitution does not set up an Islamic state or suggest Sharia Law. Instead, the bargain-makers agreed to carefully word the document so that it simply keeps Islam as the official religion of Tunisia.

Ali Larayedh, Tunisia’s prime minister and prominent Ennahda party member, resigned in early January, but as the New York Times reports, the resignation was part of a larger political agreement to get to the next level of negotiations. Larayedh’s resignation denotes a shift in political power away from the Islamists and towards the secularists. It is important to note, though, that this agreement came out of a political strategy and not out of a coup, like in neighboring Egypt. The fact that popular support for Islamists is about equal to popular support for secularists is important to note here. This competition forces the two sides to compromise rather than allowing for one side to overpower the other.

Lastly, the Tunisian military took drastically different steps than the Egyptian military in the aftermath of their respective revolutions. Since Nasser’s Egypt, the military has remained a trusted political institution. When something upsets the political equilibrium in Egypt, many look to the military for leadership. Conversely, in Tunisia the military remains largely apolitical after the Arab Spring. The remnants of Ben Ali’s security forces are disabled, and thus there has not been a reactive “crackdown” like we have seen in Egypt.

Tunisia is still far from being in the clear. Many aspects of political, social and economic life have yet to be settled after the Arab Spring. As the negotiation process continues, we can hope that the Tunisians continue down a path to prosperity, possibly providing a new model for nation building in post-revolutionary nations.

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