Tunisia’s National Dialogue Is a Post-Arab Spring Success Story
A bleak and gloomy season seems to have replaced the “Arab Spring.” The early peaceful protests in Syria are just a memory as the country continues along a fratricidal path. Libya, with outside help, has shed the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, but seems overtaken by chaos. The will and demands of peaceful protestors in Bahrain have been ignored by an international community willing to condone the monarchy’s repression.
In Yemen, autocracy has been excised only to embolden forces that risk tearing the country apart. And in Egypt, the most populous and influential of the Arab Spring countries, deep discord and recurrent violence reveal fundamental disagreements about the nature of national government after Hosni Mubarak. Only in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in 2011, is optimism concerning a steady transition to democracy justified. Certainly, Tunisia has had setbacks and continues to face serious challenges: two prominent politicians from the secularist opposition have been assassinated; radicalism has injected itself into Tunisian public life; and, in remote areas, violent radicals have had sporadic clashes with national security forces.
A political crisis appeared to be looming, with the extended mandate of the first transitional government, produced by elections in 2011, stretching further without the stipulated fulfillment of a permanent constitution, electoral laws, and an electoral timeline. But just before the second anniversary of the election of Tunisia’s constituent assembly, the country seems to have chosen the gradual path of constructing lasting democratic structures. A National Dialogue process, bringing together a broad cross-section of Tunisia’s political spectrum, is set to defuse the crisis by providing an agreed-upon interim structure.
Through this process, Tunisia is setting an example for crisis resolution in a post-Arab Spring context. The National Dialogue was launched at the initiative of a quartet of civil actors: the two main labor unions, the lawyers’ union, and the Tunisian Human Rights League. At a time where the focus is often on the so-called deep state and its effects on political transition, it was a deep society that smoothed the course for progress in Tunisia. Tunisia’s political spectrum has coherent blocks, including leftists, secularists, and nationalists, who are often more influential the public discourse than can be assumed from their electoral performances. It also includes a plethora of new Salafist formations ― radical Islamists who remain outside of mainstream political discourse ― whose presence as a national phenomenon is often dismissed. But for the most part, political competition looks set to be between Nida’ Tunis and Ennahda. Nida’ Tunis is often characterized as a reconstitution of the defunct Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the political structure led by the deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The RCD was prone to autocracy and corruption, but it was also instrumental in shaping a path to development and reform in Tunisia over the past few decades. Despite political repression, RCD is not remembered in Tunisia as a totalitarian entity to be rejected outright, but rather an essentially positive force that was subverted by abuses and excesses. For many, Nida’ Tunis represents a new and improved reincarnation of RCD. Ennahda, on the other hand, is Tunisia’s main Islamist party and the winner of a plurality in the previous elections. Although it is led by the Islamist reformer Rashid al-Ghannushi and seeks an Islamically rooted renaissance, Ennahda underscores its continuity with past Tunisian reform movements and its fundamental compatibility with democracy. In other words, both Islamists and those with some ties to the ancien régime in Tunisia adhere to more moderate positions than their counterparts in other Arab Spring countries.
While optimism is indeed justified for a constructive outcome in Tunisia, the possibility of setbacks cannot be excluded. Still, the lesson from Tunisia is that a stronger civil society is a guarantor of progress. It is a lesson that policymakers in the region and beyond ought to learn when shaping their responses to other outcomes of the Arab Spring.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.