A Tale of Three Countries

The year 2011 saw three seemingly immovable North African leaders toppled by popular uprisings. The Arab Spring started in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, but news of Tunisia’s post-uprising transformations quickly died down when similar uprisings in Egypt and Libya took dramatic turns.  ‘Spring’ turned to ‘Winter’ as Egypt became plagued with instability and insecurity induced by the rift between radical Islam supporters and their opponents, and Libya fell prey to a clash of militias driven by radical ideologies. With very little news coming out of Tunisia compared to the round-the-clock coverage of Egypt and Libya, the world seemed to live by the ‘no news (or little) is good news’ mantra. In the end, it was good news, and it is quite important today to wonder how Tunisia escaped the fate of Egypt and Libya. How much of an Arab Spring success story was Tunisia?

Image courtesy of Antoine Walter © 2011, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Antoine Walter © 2011, some rights reserved

On January 28th, 2014, Tunisia adopted a new constitution. Hailed as a great achievement for the country, many outside observers considered it to be amongst the most liberal constitutions in the entire Middle East and North Africa. That said, the post-uprising situation was not always as promising as it is today. Immediately after the Ben Ali regime’s demise, the country’s elites took control and established an interim government. In October 2011, a Constituent Assembly was elected with the task to draft a new constitution for the country within the year. This goal however proved quite optimistic, as the country quickly fell prey to political turmoil and deadlock. Post-uprising Tunisia saw the return of Rashid al-Ghannushi from exile, and the resurgence of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. Winning 90 out of the 217 seats at the Constituent Assembly, it quickly established itself as the leading party in the Assembly and increasingly became more influential in shaping the future of the country. Supporters of the secular opposition parties did not meet this swift return to preeminence of moderate Islamist with enthusiasm, themselves feeling threatened by Ennahda’s view of the role of Islam. Both sides expressed unwillingness to compromise, and Tunisia started descending into a political stalemate that delayed the constitutional project. The internal climate almost took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2013 when two secular politicians, one of them opposition leader Mohamed Brahimi, were assassinated in the streets of Tunis. Secular supporters immediately accused the Ennahda and the Islamists of having carried out these high profiled assassinations, and protests once again broke out in the country.

The situation could have resembled Egypt or Libya’s, had it not been for Ennahda’s unprecedented move towards agreeing to set aside fundamental ideological differences and step down once a new constitution is passed. The ruling party also agreed to make major concessions, and contentious issues regarding the constitutional project were rapidly resolved. The new constitution was voted in with 200 votes in favour, 4 against, and 12 abstentions, and is acclaimed as being a sign of a politically united Tunisia. As agreed, the Ennahda government stepped down to leave room for the non-political, technocratic cabinet of Mehdi Jomaa. The contents of this new constitution are crucial to understanding why Tunisia can be seen as the most successful Arab Spring story to date. It is consists of 146 articles, encompassing provisions for the protection of the freedom of speech as well as belief, with an affirmation of this freedom and a ban on attacks on religions. It also provides for full gender equality, and takes active steps towards fighting corruption. It establishes a system of ‘open government’, which provides for full transparency, citizen access to government files and proceedings, and combats state secrecy, the norm under Ben Ali.

When examining this new constitution more closely, one will agree that it is indeed one of the most liberal ones to date in the region. This raises the question of, if Tunisia can do it, why has it gone so wrong in Egypt and Libya? When looking at the recent history of those countries, Tunisia has no tradition of military violence in politics. The role of the military seems historically much weaker in Tunisia than in Egypt, where for decades the country’s political system was founded upon military coups, or in Libya where the entire system rested upon Gaddafi’s proclaimed legitimacy as ‘supreme commander’. Furthermore, while Tunisia adopted an inclusive political order in which Ennahda shared the power with two minority secular opposition parties, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood excluded any prospective opponents in the democratic process, providing an incentive for them to unite against Morsi and eventually remove him from power. The ongoing attempts to silence the Muslim Brotherhood and to keep them away from any participation in the democratic process is sparking further protests and violence, contrasting with Tunisia’s tolerance of all parties. The case of Libya is a particularly complex one due to its very history. Indeed, after a bloody Civil War in 2010 that succeeded in putting an end to the 42-year rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libyans struggled to come up with a strategy to rebuild the country. The ensuing power vacuum has been filled by powerful militia groups that seized power during the war, as well as tribal leaders. Both sides consistently undermine the weak post-war government, already struggling to establish its legitimacy following the lack of new constitution. In the midst of this, the country is facing a revival in regionalist separatist movements, who claim historical grounds for wanting independence from the central government in Tripoli.

From the same ideals and ardour three uprisings were born, yielding however three very different results. By examining their historical and societal context, the reasons why it is currently not working out in Egypt or Libya while Tunisia is on the road to success become apparent. Tunisia is fortunate enough to have kept its armed forces away from the political process, and to have a strong legacy of unity, identity, and nonviolence. While the passing of the new constitution easily makes Tunisia the beacon of light in an Arab Spring turned sour for most analysts and academics, there is still a long road to go in order to achieve complete stability. Domestic issues such as the state of the economy, unemployment, and dormant political and social tensions will be the challenges of tomorrow. That said, the people of Tunisia have set a precedent, and our eyes must now turn towards Egypt and Libya, in the hopes that they too will be able to follow in Tunisia’s footsteps.

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