Two cheers for the Tunisian election

The recent preliminary Tunisian election results provide legitimate
causes for concern, but overall the process and even the outcome are
grounds for more optimism than pessimism. There are a number of
crucial positive aspects that cannot be downplayed.

First, the fact that the vote took place and appears to have been free
and fair is a milestone. Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab uprisings, is
also the furthest along in the transition toward genuine
post-dictatorship democracy.

Second, the exceedingly high voter turnout, over 90 percent, and the
large number of participating parties, means the citizenry was
genuinely engaged at a broad level. This can only be a good thing for
genuinely representative government.

Third, the army appears to have taken a genuine decision to retreat
from the political process and allow a popularly-driven system to
shape the outcome of regime change.

Fourth, the election was for a Constituent Assembly that will draw up
a new constitution for the country, meaning that a broad-based process
will be shaping the structure of the new Tunisian system rather than
top-down dictates. The outcome of such a process will almost certainly
have more legitimacy than anything imposed by an elite and will have
greater prospects for long-term stability.

What is less reassuring is the strong performance of the Islamist
Al-Nahda Party, which garnered approximately 40 percent of the vote
and will be by far the largest in the assembly. The party is often
described as a “moderate Islamist” one, and compared to many others in
the Arab world, that might be a plausible relative description.

But in fact, Nahda almost certainly remains quite radical in its
ideology and long-term ambitions, so its prominent role in the new
Tunisian political scene and constitution-crafting process is a
legitimate source of concern.

Two important factors are significant grounds for reassurance, however.

First, collectively secularist parties garnered over 50 percent of the
vote, meaning that Tunisia has not demonstrated an Islamist majority.

Nahda clearly knows that its core Islamist agenda has certainly not
carried the day in any definitive sense. The statements of its leaders
reflect an understanding that its future depends on recognizing that
overreaching would be a kiss of death, and they have done their best
to put the most moderate possible face on their program and

Second, Nahda appears set to form a coalition with a much smaller but
influential secular and moderate socialist party, Ettakatol.

Critics complain that the upcoming marriage of convenience between
Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jaâfar and Nahda is a cynical move by
both that makes no ideological sense and is simply about gaining power
for both within the new system.

This is exactly right, but should be seen as a positive development
rather than a negative one. This is what parliamentary democracy looks
like in practice everywhere: Parties make deals across unlikely
ideological lines in order to create majorities, as currently seen in
Britain, Israel and many other countries with strange-bedfellow
coalitions. It means Tunisians are recognizing that compromise is the
essence of this democratic form of politics.

Everyone will be watching the constitution-writing process carefully
to see who is favored by its electoral systems and what limitations
are placed on government powers, especially with regard to the rights
of individuals, women and minorities. But the process of compromise is
already underway.

These are very early days, but the Tunisian election suggests that
post-dictatorship Arab democracy even with the powerful participation
of Islamist parties is indeed possible.

Nahda’s strong performance seems to have been more linked to its
emphasis on social justice and economic issues than its reactionary
religious agenda. Secular parties, by contrast, in spite of their
strong showing overall, remain deeply divided and disorganized, and
wasted most of the campaign maligning Nahda in terms that recalled the
rhetoric of the former dictatorship rather than articulating their own
vision for Tunisia’s future. They especially failed to adequately
address Tunisians’ urgent economic concerns.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has obviously noted this element of
Nahda’s strong performance, moving to ramp up its already robust
social services program and distribute cheap food for the recent Eid
al-Adha festival.

The conclusions from Tunisia’s election are that emergent Arab
democracy seems more plausible than ever, even with robust Islamist
participation. Islamists are better disciplined and organized than
secularists but do not command automatic majorities, and secularists
need to focus on articulating their own vision, organizing themselves
as an alternative, and appealing to people’s social and economic
needs. Western societies that wish to see secularists and modernists
do well should also move more robustly to help them overcome these

These are tentative baby steps toward the emergence of a real Arab
democracy, but they are indispensable ones. So, in spite of the real
grounds for concern about Nahda’s future role, two cheers for the
Tunisian election.