Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Secularist Success in Tunisia

Following a coup in Egypt, civil war in Syria, and mounting armed conflict in Libya, Tunisia may well be the Arab Spring’s last hope for a true success story. Three years after deposing dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s populace has voted in its second parliamentary election, and preliminary results show that the leading secularist party Nidaa Tounes (“Call for Tunisia”) has won 80 of 217 parliamentary seats. Nidaa finished ahead of the incumbent Islamist party Ennahda (67 seats), and its electoral success is viewed as a mandate from the people to uphold Tunisia’s secular reputation.

Tunisians line up at the polls. Photo courtesy EPA. 
Among the states that experienced regime change during the Arab Spring, Tunisia stood alone for its history of secularism and relatively peaceful transition. Following the uprising, however, Ennahda’s rise to power coupled with two assassinations of secular opposition leaders and attempted suicide attacks led to fears that the country was backsliding into extremism. These fears are hardly surprising given the tragic trail of events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, but do not appear to be manifesting in the latest elections. While extremist parties like Ansar al-Sharia continue to threaten political stability, the willingness of Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes, and the multitude of smaller political parties to seek coalition and cooperation has for now overcome their ideological differences in the interest of stability.

Yet Nidaa Tounes’s victory has also given rise to fears that it is simply bringing back the ancien régime. Formed in July 2012 as a coalition of liberal and secular political activists and parties, its founder is Beji Caid Essebsi, “an 87-year-old veteran who served under the former regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali,” and it includes many technocrats from the Ben Ali regime as well. While such people do not lack the credentials to run a government, fear that they will bring back the old regime’s policy was underlined earlier this year in a failed campaign to pass an exclusion law, outlawing former regime employees’ participation in politics.

While the proclivity of Nidaa Tounes to skew towards the former regime’s policies remains to be seen, it did not gain enough votes to form a government on its own, and thus must seek a unity government with what many hope will be constraining elements from other parties. The formation of the government will be crucial in the lead-up to December’s presidential elections, and the way for Nidaa to consolidate its power is clear, as Ennahda does not intend to field a candidate.

Whatever the results of the negotiations to form a coalition government, Tunisia’s new (and old) leaders still have several significant obstacles to tackle to ensure the continuation of democratic consolidation. The economy remains stagnant and unemployment high, two main contributing factors to the revolution that unseated Ben Ali. There is also the continued threat of terrorism by extremists, especially if some of the 3,000 Tunisians fighting with Islamic State in Syria return for the presidential elections, as feared by many secularists and moderate Islamists alike. Yet in this moment of democratic consolidation, Tunisia has at least achieved one important benchmark: the transfer of power from one party to another is set to occur, and Ennahda’s elite are thus far going gracefully in the hopes of being included in a Nidaa-led government in the future. For now, any bright spot in the region is one to hold on to in the face of instability, violence, and suffering in other North African countries.


  1. Great piece with lots of great points. I'd add that these elections illustrate two important things:

    1) These elections seriously undermine the argument for the necessity of a "tradition of democracy" to achieve meaningful transition towards more representative government;

    2) These elections illustrate that the electoral quota/remainder/apportionment system devised before the first elections did exactly what they were designed to do: inhibit the entrenchment of a domineering majority, allow space for lesser parties to hold legislative seats, and require the development of broader coalitions in order to govern.

    1. Thank you for the insights, Anshul! I completely agree that the electoral rules put in place immediately following the uprising by the transitional council have been one of the key reasons - if not the main reason - that Tunisia's transition has been relatively successful. If you look at the "tradition of democracy" in Tunisia vs. Egypt, for instance, in the years prior to both uprisings the Ben Ali government was actually much more authoritarian than the Mubarak government, which was implementing some political and socioeconomic reforms to appease the populace. The electoral rules are where the two countries democratic paths diverge: where the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was given virtually no incentives to coalition-build and compromise, Ennahda from the beginning was constrained by a coalition government, which was almost inevitable given the strict limits on parliamentary majorities. Political Science at work!