At a time when Arabs and Middle East watchers are desperately in need of some good news, the Tunisian election is, thankfully, providing a bumper crop. The trend in much of the rest of the region is bad — in several cases, desperately so. But Tunisia is demonstrating, along several crucial axes, how Arab societies can, indeed, move forward in a positive direction and a constructive manner.
The fact that the election took place at all, in the context of a new constitution agreed to by all parties and with a striking absence of either fraud or violence — both compared to other Arab elections and what one might have feared in Tunisia itself — is, alone, a significant achievement.
Even more impressive was voter turnout, estimated to be over 60 percent. This is high in any country, at any time, but it’s particularly impressive in a country in which political violence has been a feature of the landscape for the past several years. Last week there was a shootout on the outskirts of Tunis between the police and National Guard, who lost one officer, and alleged insurgents who were reportedly planning to disrupt the election with some kind of violent incident. There were other worrying signs around the country, including another confrontation in the southern town of Kebili and an attack on soldiers near the country’s western border. Pre-election, the atmosphere in the country was not calm.
Concerns about unrest in Tunisia are exacerbated by the fact that the country is one of the top recruiting areas for ISIS, reportedly providing some of its most capable foreign fighters who are often given significant leadership positions. The number has reportedly reached up to 3,000 Tunisians fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In addition to the homegrown Salafist-Jihadist terrorist threat posed by Ansar al-Sharia, this apparently strong connection between Tunisian extremists and ISIS is a legitimate, and indeed unavoidable, source of concern.
There had been gloomy predictions about a low turnout based on fears of unrest, cynicism or voter exhaustion. None of that proved correct. In fact, Tunisians appeared to strongly welcome the opportunity to reassert their new democracy.
Perhaps more impressive still was the result of the election. Defying the expectations of many observers, particularly in the West, the non-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party appears to have won a striking victory over the Muslim Brotherhood-like Ennahda party. Ennahda won by far the largest number of seats in the last Parliament, heavily out-polling all other parties in the country’s first post-dictatorship election.
Following a series of significant missteps and setbacks, the Ennahda-led troika government resigned last year in favor of a caretaker administration tasked with setting up and conducting the elections that have just been concluded. Nonetheless, many observers believed that Ennahda was poised for a major comeback, and that this election in Tunisia would stem the tide of regional losses for the Brotherhood-movement. These defeats include not only the resignation of the Ennahda-led government in Tunisia, but also the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, the stripping of key cabinet positions from the control of the Islamist Prime Minister of Morocco, Libya’s Islamists being forced to resort to using militias to enforce their will, the virtual collapse of the Brotherhood in Jordan, and the sidelining of the Brotherhood in Syria’s uprising.
“Islamist Party in Tunisia Appears Set to Rebound,” was the New York Times‘ headline on the eve of this election. The article called it “a front runner” and said that it was “revamping of its candidate lists to include new and independent faces, intended to reverse its sliding popularity.” All true enough. And yet these expectations were profoundly mistaken.
As official results trickle in, present trends strongly and unanimously indicate that Nidaa Tounes has won at least 10 seats more than Ennahda, and possibly considerably more than that. Several Ennahda leaders and spokespersons have conceded defeat and congratulated Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi on his victory.
So what changed between this election and the last one?
First, Islamism in general, and the Brotherhood in particular, including analogous parties like Ennahda, are in sharp decline in popularity in mainstream Arab societies. The past year and a half or so has registered a significant downturn in the fortune of Brotherhood and other parliamentary-oriented Islamist groups in the Arab world seeking power through elections. It has concomitantly seen a rise in the power and influence of extremist movements like ISIS that operate purely through force of arms, and in the context of failed states and failing societies.
It’s not exactly an irony — indeed it’s more of a crucial point — that those Islamists that are experiencing a relative decline are precisely those who seek to operate openly in mainstream Arab societies, competing for power legitimately against other mainstream Arab political orientations. They haven’t fared well because their ability to appeal to the Arab mainstream is declining, while the armed radicals make no effort to appeal to this majority sentiment. They see themselves as an armed vanguard, and expect to have to enforce their rule through the barrel of a gun.
Moreover, the reasons for the decline in Brotherhood popularity with mainstream Arab majorities are not terribly mysterious. In the immediate post-dictatorship context, these parties had no track record in government and merely represented an opposition untainted by any association with the former regime. That’s no longer the case. Arabs have had the opportunity to watch Islamists in power, and to register the fact that they aren’t any cleaner, more honest, more competent or more effective than other groups. Indeed, in some cases, considerably less so.
Which brings us to the second big change between this Tunisian election and the last one: the rise of Nidaa Tounes. Last time around Ennahda got a much larger percentage of the vote than it did this time, but it still wasn’t a majority. The majority was secular, or at least non-Islamist, but it was spread among at least 20 parties. Ennahda faced virtually no significant Islamist opposition, so all of the votes accruing to that faction went to them.
Nidaa Tounes, founded in 2012, has since emerged as an effective umbrella group for enough of a consensus among Tunisian non-Islamists to prevail in this election. Its chances were further bolstered by the rejection of Tunisia’s previous, wide-ranging, political exclusion bill (Article 167 of the draft electoral law), which would have prevented large numbers of people in some way or another associated with the former regime from political participation.
The rejection of this law, which was once dear to the heart of Ennahda, was a double victory for Nidaa Tounes. First, it laid the basis for many of their most important members to reenter politics. And, second, it heralded a popular acceptance of the idea that many people associated with the former regime in one capacity or another should be allowed back into the political sphere precisely because of their experience. In the immediate post-dictatorship environment, such an association was inevitably seen as “counterrevolutionary.” But as time has worn on and the challenges of governance reasserted themselves, experience in administration increasingly doesn’t look so bad to ordinary Tunisians. So the idea of rejecting wide-ranging political exclusion presaged and heralded the apparent victory in this election of the party, Nidaa Tounes, which precisely represents that what used to be seen as tainted by the dictatorship and is now more typically seen as useful experience that needs to be reintegrated into governance.
The third big difference is that in the last election Ennahda campaigned on social and economic issues, presenting themselves as the authentic representatives of “the revolution.” Most of its secular and non-Islamist rivals focused on trying to spread fear of Ennahda. It was never going to work. This time around Nidaa Tounes concentrated on the bellwether issues of economic decline, unemployment and the threat of violent extremism. Of course there was an implicit, and sometimes even explicit, critique of the performance of the Ennahda-led troika government on all these matters. But there was no effort to demonize Ennahda or urge people to vote for Nidaa Tounes out of fear of Ennahda. This time the secularists were clear about what they were for, not just who they were against.
The New York Times, which reported the results by noting, “The swing away from Ennahda… to Nidaa Tounes surprised many,” was joined by plenty of others who clearly didn’t see this coming. But Ennahda’s wily and experienced leader Rachid Ghannouchi may well have. In the weeks leading up to the election he spoke many times about the possibility of his party forming a coalition government with Nidaa Tounes.
This type of conciliatory politics is simply intelligent. It’s most likely that he had a strong sense that his party wasn’t going to prevail this time around and was therefore setting the stage for asking to be part of a new government from a position of relative weakness, but before it had become clear to most people, in undoubtedly the most dignified and effective way of broaching the subject in public.
But had Ennahda somehow prevailed, then these calls would have been seen as statesmanlike and constructively conciliatory. Either way, he couldn’t lose.
Nidaa Tounes’ options will become clearer when the full results are in, and once the nitty-gritty coalition negotiations really get going. But the party has already hinted that it might try to avoid a coalition with Ennahda, suggesting it wants to form a government with other “democratic” groups. Of course, depending on how you define that term, that doesn’t necessarily rule out Ennahda’s participation in the long run either.
But the politics of conciliation have served both parties well over the past year and a half. Ennahda’s relatively gracious and historically significant acceptance of their defeat and congratulations to Essebsi deserve recognition and praise. That Ghannouchi’s conciliatory approach is also the wisest one from the point of view of political power does nothing to discredit it. Just as it is ridiculous that so many in the West, including Washington, rush to give Ghannouchi all the credit for compromising in Tunisia when everyone, in fact, has compromised, it would be equally invidious and unfair to withhold the credit for compromise and conciliation that Ghannouchi and his party have clearly earned.
In the summer of 2013, as both the crisis in mainstream politics in Tunisia and the threat from the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group were reaching a boiling point, Ghannouchi traveled to Paris to meet “secretly” with Essebsi. Tensions between Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis had become so bitter that they were threatening the foundations of the nascent and fledgling new Tunisian political order itself. Ghannouchi was by no means innocent of collusion in this process of political deterioration, most notably by his notorious outburst that “Nidaa Tunis are even worse than the Salafists [meaning Ansar al-Sharia, in other words ‘worse than terrorists’].”
But after the Essebsi/Ghannouchi summit in Paris last summer, the political climate began to cool down considerably. The leaders and their parties started treating and referring to each other as legitimate contributors to a new Tunisian political order rather than as “counterrevolutionaries” or potential “terrorists.” The long-term result has been this election in which Tunisians have freely and fairly picked a parliament with no majority party, and that almost certainly represents a reasonable approximation of the range of political views in the country (with the possible exclusion of support for terrorism, which can’t be accommodated in a peaceful democratic system).
The Tunisian election shows that several commonplace assumptions about Arabs and the Arab world are wrong. That Arabs are not capable of behaving democratically. That they are fundamentally Islamist in nature because they are mostly devout Muslims. That Islamists will only accept the results of elections which they have won and cannot grow to accept political pluralism. And, finally, that the alternative to dictatorship is chaos and failed statehood.
It will be countered that Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. Every other Arab society in transition demonstrates the fundamental truth of those assertions, it will be said, and if Tunisia somehow doesn’t fit into the picture, that only emphasizes how strong the pattern is everywhere else.
But there isn’t anything unique in Tunisia that sets it apart from all other Arab states, including its proximity to Europe; decades of progressive, secular dictatorship; and relative homogeneity and prosperity. These factors are often cited to explain Tunisian exceptionalism.
There isn’t any reason particularly to believe in Tunisian exceptionalism though. True enough, Tunisians have continued to show the way forward, and this election is perhaps the biggest single expression of that regional moral and political leadership the country has developed. And, true enough, that all Arab states have unique features that set them apart from all the others.
But if Tunisians can achieve this kind of political accomplishment, which is routine in much of the world but unheard of and indeed revolutionary in the Arab world, why not see it as a bellwether for the future of the region? Why on earth would anyone want to (and it is a choice) assume that Tunisia is uniquely able to construct a democracy while the rest of the Arab world is consigned to long-term, or even permanent, incapability? It’s at least as plausible that Tunisia is demonstrating how democracy really works in the Arab world, and that this example will be followed, with modifications, elsewhere, given time.
After a summer of ISIS, the Gaza war, the further collapse of Libya and Yemen into chaos, and so many other regional nightmares, it would be both irrational and foolish not to embrace Tunisia’s accomplishment as at least as much of a representative of the Arab present, and the potential Arab future, as any of these nightmares.