A Big Step Forward: Tunisia’s Fragile Democratic Consolidation

"Proponents of Tunisia’s democratic transition in the United States and the international community can help."

Those in Washington still hopeful about the positive potential of the 2011 Arab uprisings should celebrate Tunisia’s successful October 26 legislative elections. By all accounts, the elections were an unprecedented success compared to regional standards: they were competitive, well managed and involved a high national turnout rate (69 percent). The incumbent party, Ennahda, was narrowly defeated. Indeed, the contestation of power is thriving in Tunisia four years after a vegetable vendor set himself ablaze to protest the indignities of the oppressive dictatorship.

It is important to savor—and study—this fall’s rare moment for optimism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Since 2011, the rest of the region’s political transitions have been overwhelmed by violence and civil strife; whether in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya or Iraq, there has been a paucity of democratic progress across the region.

Yet, even as they celebrate Tunisia’s progress, U.S. policy makers and others in the international community should avoid the tendency to advance an election-centric perspective—one that privileges electoral progress above all else in democratic transitions. Indeed, the consolidation of democracy in Tunisia, and the rest of the region, will require far more than elections. In particular, it will require the careful incubation of political compromise skills, particularly the willingness to share power with bitter rivals.

In Tunisia, the successful October 26 elections now commence the difficult government formation period. Nidaa Tounes, which won 85 out of 217 seats in the new Assembly of the Representatives of the People, and the Ennahda Party, which won 69 seats, will negotiate whether to form a unity government, dividing ministerial portfolios. The alternative is a Nidaa Tounes–led government with Ennahda remaining in the opposition.

During these upcoming tough government-formation debates, deep substantive divides about the nature of the state will once again emerge. These deep political and social disagreements prolonged the twenty-four-month period of constitution-writing, from 2011 through the constitution’s adoption in early 2014.

First, Tunisians disagree about the nature of a secular state, with divergent views of how Islamic law should be reflected, if at all, in the court systems, personal status laws and educational institutions.

Second, Tunisians are debating how to address the urgent problem of joblessness and underemployment. Given the youth bulge, creating jobs is a national-security priority. The absence of jobs was a major trigger of the 2011 revolution. At the same time, Tunisian society and political life have long rested on a foundation of strong labor unions, which have built the current labor rights that may, in some cases, deter job-creating foreign investors and businesses. In Tunisia, business-versus-labor can be as contentious a societal division as the secular-versus-Islamist cleavage.

The third societal tension has direct, immediate implications for U.S. national security. The new freedoms in the post–Ben Ali era, combined with the quick dissolution of a repressive police state without the development of a robust security-sector alternative, has contributed to the urgent problem of jihadism among Tunisian youth. Tunisians now represent one of the largest factions of foreign fighters from the Arab world fighting with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah in Iraq and Syria.

How to rebuild a fair but strong police and internal-security system that befits a new democracy and can counter the rampant radicalization presents a significant political challenge to Tunisia’s new leaders.

All three issues will require delicate compromises forged among political leaders in a way that recognizes the many societal points of view. Trying to govern inclusively, representing divergent viewpoints and stakeholders is particularly hard in a postauthoritarian environment. Ben Ali ruled only for himself and his small clique. He eviscerated Tunisia’s once-robust civil society and prevented any type of “civic action,” including communicative, inclusive, political discussions among governmental and nongovernmental sectors. For decades, political leaders never had to compromise, because in this relatively homogenous society of Sunni Muslims, opposition political parties were banned and opposition media that might have promoted free debate was sent underground. Until 2011, Internet restrictions in Tunisia were among the most punitive in the world.

The new Tunisian leadership must ensure that any disagreements regarding the above issues do not create paralysis within the new government, which would de-legitimize the nascent democratization process and lead to mass disillusionment.

Proponents of Tunisia’s democratic transition in the United States and the international community can help. In particular, the United States, despite its particular discomfort and inexperience doing so, must elevate its diplomatic and programmatic tools focused on promoting productive civic and political debates and compromise.