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Tunisia stands out

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • December 31, 2014

    With the conclusion of the parliamentary election in October and the presidential election in December 2014 based on a constitution acknowledged as the best in the Arab world for its fine balancing of the country’s Islamic heritage with the need for modernity, Tunisia has done what Egypt (the most populous member of the Arab family) has failed to do. While Tunisia has moved towards democracy at reasonable speed, Egypt and others have drifted in the opposite direction with distressing rapidity.

    Obviously, the most interesting question is how Tunisia made it whereas Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria find themselves in turmoil of varying intensity. To start with, the revolution in Egypt was reversed mainly because the powerful Army is against any democracy that threatens its hold on the state. It is misunderstood by some that Hosni Mubarak left office because he heard the roar of hundreds of thousands from the Tahrir Square and elsewhere demanding an end to his rule. That is only half the story. Mubarak left because the Army ‘invited’ him to leave. The Army would have sent out that invitation whether or not the people of Egypt demanded an end to the Mubarak regime. The Army was deeply worried that Mubarak, 83 years of age in 2011, was grooming his son Gamal as his successor, and it was convinced that its vast economic empire, reportedly amounting to 30 to 40 per cent of the GDP, would not be safe under Gamal. Further, Gamal would have been the first president who was not from the military in the country’s history. The Army took over power, played games with elections, outwitted the Muslim Brotherhood, and staged a soft coup in July 2013 by kidnapping the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi against whom there was a big revolt on the streets.

    In Tunisia, the story was quite different. The Army supported the people when they rose up against Ben Ali. It was partly because of the Army’s refusal to shoot at demonstrators that forced Ben Ali to flee. The Army in Tunisia is not running any business and has no interest in grabbing political power. Therefore, politics played out, unhindered by the interference of the Army.

    The second important difference between Egypt and Tunisia is that the Ennahda Party, the Tunisian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, played the political game in a smarter manner than its Egyptian counterpart. Ennahda did very well in the October 2011 general election by winning 90 out of 217 seats and emerged as the largest party. It formed a coalition government with secular parties while also agreeing to members of other parties holding such major offices as that of the president and the speaker. In other words, its electoral victory did not go into the head of the Ennahda. The credit for this goes primarily to Rachid Ghannouchi who was in exile for 22 years before returning to post-Ben Ali Tunisia in early 2011.

    The Ennahda Government, however, came under attack when two prominent opposition politicians were murdered. The government was seen as either incompetent or being in collusion with the perpetrators. Be that as it may, the ruling party agreed to a technocratic government after the constitution was adopted. The parliamentarians showed commendable maturity by seriously debating the provisions of the Constitution before adopting it in early 2014 with an overwhelming majority (200 voted in favour, 12 against, and four abstained).

    In the parliamentary election held in October 2014, Ennahda was defeated by Nidaa Tounes, a party founded in 2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi went on to win the presidential election with a comfortable margin, scoring 55.68 per cent against the 44.32 per cent scored by his opponent Moncef Marzouki. Essebsi was earlier minister under Habib Bourguiba and also under Ben Ali. He has support from those who were with Ben Ali, a section of the civil society including the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union, and some business interests.

    Can Tunisia’s transition to democracy be regarded as complete? Not yet. There are various problems which need to be addressed, particularly unemployment among the youth which is around 43 per cent. Both the European Union and the United States must lend economic support to the new democracy in Tunisia. There is a growing desperation among the youth, evidenced by reports of over 2,000 of them having gone to Iraq/ Syria to join the jihadi groups. Ben Ali’s government fell mainly because a large number of educated youth did not have proper employment opportunities. The rallying cry, therefore, was employment and dignity. While dignity has been somewhat recovered, employment for the youth remains a major issue. The security establishment under the two dictators was unwilling to respect the freedom of expression despite the revolution. The new government thus needs to tread carefully and attend to this matter urgently.

    Will the Ennahda be a responsible opposition? Most likely. Despite the difficult economic situation, Tunisia can look forward to political stability and economic growth, hopefully on an inclusive basis. Though the 88-year old Essebsi is keeping good health, prudence requires that his party should bring up a younger leadership.

    Tunisia has had a tradition of empowerment of women since independence. It is noteworthy that the Tunisian Constitution stipulates that 50 per cent of the candidates put up by any party should be women. But there is a catch here.  What is important is how many women are put on the top of the list. The constitutional requirement is that among those on the top of the list at least one-third should be women. In the parliament elected in 2011, women accounted for 28 per cent of the members, which  went up to 31 per cent in 2014. In comparison, the US Congress has 18 per cent and the French Parliament 27 per cent. The women of Tunisia are determined to continue their fight for a larger share under the leadership of Faiza Skandrani, a woman of remarkable determination.

    Tunisia has disproved the pundits in the West who claimed that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy. The Arab world and the larger international community are watching Tunisia with hope and goodwill. But Tunisia needs and deserves sustained support by way of investment and loans.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India