Tunisia works, but it is fragile. The rest of the world should give it a hand
The hope that popular protests against Arab dictators in 2011 would bring justice and democracy has given way to despair, chaos and unimaginable bloodletting. Yet the spirit of the Arab spring survives in the country where it all started: Tunisia.
The country has adopted a new constitution that guarantees religious freedom and equality between the sexes, the product of rare consensus-building by Islamist and secular parties. On October 26th citizens will vote freely for a second time, to elect a new parliament. Next month they will choose a new president.
Tunisia is proof of a precious truth: the Arab world can change for the better, and Islam can be reconciled with democracy. The rest of the world should applaud, and help Tunisia complete the transition.
The country’s relative success springs partly from good fortune. As a homogeneous society, it has been spared the Shia-Sunni schism that is sundering Syria and Iraq. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia has no history of baleful military rule. Unlike Algeria, it has not been brutalised by civil war. It is untouched by the curse of oil. Citizens’ activism in the trade unions, business organisations or professional bodies survived the rule of successive strongmen. Tunisia preserved a middle class, nurtured it through education and developed close economic ties with Europe, especially France and Italy. Whereas Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood were mostly exiled in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, the leaders of Nahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, mostly went to Europe.
The Carthaginian exception
But Tunisia also created its own luck. Nahda’s leaders are a moderate and pragmatic bunch, who have learned from the mistakes of Islamists elsewhere. In Egypt Muhammad Morsi alienated many of his compatriots by concentrating power in the Brotherhood’s hands and was toppled by the army. In Tunisia, when post-revolutionary politics appeared close to collapse last year after the murder of two opposition politicians, Nahda agreed to dissolve the three-party government it led and made way for a cabinet of technocrats.
Although Tunisia’s political achievement is impressive, it remains fragile and reversible. It is buffeted by instability in the region, especially Libya. There are signs of disillusionment with democratic politics. Above all, a revolution born out of protests over economic conditions has yet to bring improvements in the standard of living. Real GDP per person has been stagnant since the revolution. Foreign tourists and investors are shying away. But the problems are also caused by an economic system that protects politically connected firms and produces mostly low-skilled assembly jobs. In parts of the deprived south, unemployment, smuggling networks and jihadism are producing a poisonous mixture. Strikingly, an estimated 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight in Syria, making up the largest contingent of foreign jihadists.
The country’s future must be decided by Tunisians themselves. In an election contested by around 100 parties, the front-runners are Nahda and the more secular Nidaa Tounes coalition. Either is credible, but whichever wins should rule by consensus and liberalise the economy to rekindle growth.
Outsiders can also lend a hand. The Gulf states should help stabilise Tunisia rather than treat it as a fresh battleground in their proxy contest for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, as they do in Libya and Egypt. The West, for its part, should sustain civil-society groups, and provide more generous economic help in return for sensible economic reforms. Europe should open up its markets to Tunisia’s exports; if it does not want migrants (or perhaps jihadists) from Tunisia it should at least admit its tomatoes and olives. Precisely because of the crises elsewhere, the world must not neglect Tunisia: it is a rare light in a dark region.