Election complete, Tunisia is still a ray of hope for the Middle East

Hope springs. EPA/Mohamed Messara

Let’s face it: once a term laden with hope for the Middle East, the idea of an “Arab Spring” has become merely depressing.

Assorted humanitarian disasters have followed in its wake – think of the unspeakable violence by the so-called Islamic State, or the disintegration of Libya‘s social and political fabric. In Egypt, the die-hard habit of letting the army choose the country’s rulers has returned. Elsewhere, as in Bahrain, revolts nipped in the bud – or repressed with the help of muscular police forces - have been silenced for good.

And yet, the cradle of the Arab Spring is once again leading the way. With the peaceful election of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia, the first Arab country where popular protests proved to be enough to get rid of an autocrat, has just shown the world that an orderly management of a revolution was always an option on the table.

Keeping the dream alive

In four short years, Tunisia has gone through the entire cycle of ousting an apparently lifelong president, electing a constituent assembly, producing a new constitution, and organising a round of fully democratic legislative and presidential elections.

It has successfully navigated the murky waters of post-revolutionary instability, when the future of a country becomes so open that the temptation to use political violence can be much stronger than the discipline needed to bow to the verdict of ballot boxes.

There have been, distressingly, a few cases of political assassination, but strong reactions from civil society and politicians alike have ensured that politics has not descended into open armed conflict. Similarly, shows of force from extremist groups have been condemned by the entire political class, marginalising violent jihadi groups.

In the end, decades of state commitment to education and development paid off, ensuring that political dialogue remained the preferred mode of negotiation for the majority of the population.

The right path

Once hard-fought negotiations had given birth to a new constitution (the third one in the country’s history, after those of 1861 and 1959), Tunisian voters were allowed to choose freely their country’s path. Last October, they showed their disappointment with the main victors of the constituent assembly, and almost 40% voted for Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounès party – which supports secularism, social democracy and liberalism.

Conceived in reaction to the perceived threat of an over-Islamisation of Tunisian society, and to preserve Tunisia’s founding national principles since independence from France in 1956, this party has often been criticised for allowing some politicians of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) to regain currency in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

And at 88, the president-elect can hardly be seen as a newcomer. He was a member of the nationalist party Neo-Destour, which fought from the 1930s onwards to gain independence, and he subsequently served in various key roles under the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

Essebsi was also a former president of the Tunisian parliament under Ben Ali in the early 1990s, and was the first prime minister of the post-Ben Ali transition for nine months in 2011.

But his record doesn’t mean the legacy of the revolution is under threat. On the contrary, it demonstrates that the phase of transition has been remarkably well negotiated, and that the country’s political culture is mature enough to choose its political future peacefully and fairly.

The legislative and presidential campaigns of 2014 were fierce, with a real political debate taking place.

But a majority of Tunisians decided they wanted the country to remain secular, and they have now entrusted a party with an experienced bench to address the key problems which have developed over the last few years: insecurity, the threat of extremism, inflation and, above all, unemployment.

Forging ahead

To be sure, the task is Herculean, and high expectations will make it all the more politically perilous. But it augurs well that outgoing president Moncef Marzouki did eventually recognise his defeat, while Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Islamist party Ennahda, implicitly endorsed Essebsi between the two rounds, assuring everyone that there was no risk of a return to dictatorship.

Equally, Essebsi himself often refers to the Koran in public – a clear strategy to alleviate the fears of moderate Islamists.

While other states around it flounder and collapse into horrendous, perhaps intractable, violence, Tunisia has shown it possesses the political maturity necessary not only to play by the rules of democracy, but also to accept the result of pluralist elections while also fighting extremism.

Indeed, the country seems to be living up to the reputation of its prestigious predecessor, Carthage, praised by Aristotle for its political organisation which he thought in many respects superior to all others. A beacon of the ancient Mediterranean two and a half millennia ago, Tunisia has just shown that it can still be a beacon of peaceful change and enlightened democracy in the Arab world in the 21st century.