Is Tunisia the Arab Spring’s champion?

Tunisia’s parliamentray elections which took place on Sunday saw the country’s Islamist party Ennahda concede defeat to its main secular rival Nidaa Tounes. Nishaat Ismail writes that Tunisia’s journey to democracy is a beacon of hope for the region after the tumultuous Arab Spring.

Whilst wreckage from the Arab Spring is still dispersing in countries like Syria, Yemen and Libya, Tunisia is set to emerge as the Arab Spring victor and is on the cusp of a crucial change with the parliamentary elections that took place on 26th Octoberand the presidential elections, which will take place a month later in November.

Official provisional results show the secular Nidaa Tounes party is emerging as the main winner in the 217 seat parliament elections, which has come as somewhat of a surprise to many as, the moderate Islamist movement, Ennahda enjoys popularity amongst the country’s poor in many of its marginalised communities.

Although the country has encountered various security threats and economic instability since the revolution, it is generally viewed as the champion of the Arab Spring.  If these elections are conducted successfully Tunisia will gain the title of the Arab world’s first consolidated democracy, however the world’s attention has been fixated on the bedlam created by the so called “Islamic State” (ISIS), ignoring the evolution Tunisia has made in its quest for democracy.

Extremism, economy and democracy

However, the journey to these polls has been thorny and arduous. Since the revolution there has been an expanding Islamist- secular divide in the country. In the lead up to the parliamentary elections, there were fears from both politicians and observers, over the possibility of violent extremist Islamists hijacking the country’s progression to democracy.

Tunisia's Ansar al-Shariah has pledged support for ISIS
Tunisia’s Ansar al-Shariah has pledged support for ISIS

The extremist threat is further fuelled by geopolitics. Tunisia shares its borders with two countries that have vigorous violent extremist groups, Libya and Algeria. Both Libya and Algeria’s extremist groups have recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, raising fears amongst Tunisians particularly those in favour of the secular Nidaa Tounes party that the same might happen at home. Tunisia’s very own terrorist group Ansar al-Shariah has been responsible for causing violence and strife since its formation in 2011. On Friday 24th October, Tunisian authorities stormed the home of suspected militants to end a 24 hour standoff, leaving five women and one man dead on the outskirts of the capital, Tunis.

As well as tensions mounting due to the terrorist threat, Tunisians are particularly fretful over their deteriorating economy. Investments have plunged since the revolution and its fundamental tourism industry has also been in decline. Nationally unemployment amounts to fifteen percent, which has left young graduates in particular, disillusioned and disenfranchised from the transition process.

Ironically, the fear of terrorism and economic downturn has united moderate Islamist supporters and the country’s secular liberals. The Islamist Ennahda party and the secular Nidaa Tounes were broadly expected to emerge as the most popular parties. With regards to political rhetoric both parties speak a similar language, by placing emphasis on “institution building” and “democracy”. The Islamist-secular divide will inevitably be reduced to some degree, as a coalition government being formed is certain.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia

These elections deserve to be viewed as decidedly emblematic. It is verification that the desire of democracy that incited the Arab Spring subsists. Tunisia has moved the furthest towards a peaceful transition to a constitutional democratic system. Rashid Gannouchi, the founder of Ennahda said in an interview with the New York Times that “our democracy is the real response to terrorism” Gannouchi is convinced that the Tunisian model will be reproduced in other Arab Spring countries regardless of the bloodshed and carnage that many have been grappled with.

 

Academic, Rami Khoury suggests that Tunisia learnt from the mistakes made in countries like Egypt, Syria and Libya and committed themselves to taking steps towards pluralism. The Tunisian model of transition has been inclusive of all parties involved and has been based on consensus, which is in stark contrast to its Arab counterparts. Inexorably hostility between the two main parties remain, however it must be recognised that there has been a genuine endeavour to establish an avant-garde model of political collaboration between moderate secularists and moderate Islamists.

The Arab Spring has been plagued by violence, coups and sectarian strife, Tunisia provides a beacon of hope amongst the ferocious storm that has conquered large parts of the Arab world. The Tunisian elections are a harbinger for a new chapter in the Arab Spring narrative and the death of Mohamed Bouazizi will not be in vain.

Nishaat Ismail has just completed a post-graduate degree from Birkbeck University, London in Middle East in Global Politics: Islam, Conflict and Development (MSc) She has a BA in history from SOAS and specialises in the history and politics of the near and Middle East. She is also a blogger and contributing editor for The Moroccan Times.

You can follow Nishaat on Twitter @NishIsmail

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