By: Matthew Pesce The overthrow of Tunisia’s longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who held power for decades, led to democratic elections that reverberated throughout the region. The importance of such an event cannot be overstated. The process of democratic transition is one that is new not only to Tunisia but also the broader region. The benefit of allowing people to have a say in their leadership is a worthy endeavor in a region of the world where repression has run rampant. Not unrelated, the revolution in Tunisia set off a wider range of protests that have engulfed Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Political change in Tunisia turned out to be the catalyst necessary to spur political change elsewhere in the Arab world.
The country of Tunisia, of little previous geostrategic importance, has as a result become a microcosm for political developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. If the Tunisian model succeeds it is more likely other countries will successfully transition as well. Alternatively, if the democratic transition in Tunisia fails, democratic backsliding throughout the region is a distinct, yet grim, possibility. The successes and failures of Tunisia’s government are significant for not only Tunisia but also countries like Egypt, Libya and Yemen who are looking at Tunisia as an example of what their governments and societies could potentially be like.
The good news is that Tunisia has experienced a relatively stable democratic transition free of ethnic violence and nationalism aggression. The bad news is that the Tunisian economy, weak for decades due to poor management, is suffering further due to a lingering perception of instability. The Tunisian tourism industry, a huge portion of the Tunisian economy, has suffered since Ben Ali was overthrown. The level of foreign investment is below what it would need to be to create sufficient liquidity to spur economic recovery. Fortunately, a massive amount of economic aid from Western countries, principally the United States and European Union, will help create the infrastructure and certainty for long term Tunisian economic growth.
The critical determinate of the success or failure of Tunisia and therefore its model is the ability of Ennahda, a moderate Islamic political party, to government effectively. Ennahda, also known as the Renaissance Party, squarely won Tunisia’s first election after receiving about 40% of the popular vote, substantially more than any other political parity. The significance of the party itself to the future of the Islamic world is its simultaneous adoption of Islamic and liberal values. This approach is unique and runs counter to popular Western understanding of Islamic political thought.
To fully understand this dynamic it is necessary to backtrack and understand the origins of the decade long support from the West for dictatorships throughout the Arab world. The Western world supported dictators in the Middle East in part out of a fear that self-autonomy would lead to the rise of radical Islam. Many commentators, policymakers and scholars argued strongly that dictatorships, while imperfect, were better than the Arab street ruling according to its own whims. The result was the privileging of stability and security of Western nations over the legitimate aspirations of the Arab world. The result was the Arab Spring and a sizable amount of backlash and anti-Americanism. The result is that the West got it wrong. Stifling democratic transitions in favor of a hope for temporary stability is a recipe for backlash against American interests, a decline in American credibility in the region, a litany of human rights abuses as a result of our actions and discrepancy between our desire to enlarge the democratic community and protect our interests.
This takes us back to Ennahda and the future of America’s relationship with the Muslim world. It is a reality that political Islam and some degree of democracy are inevitable in the Arab world. President Obama and other western leaders have acknowledged this, jumping on the bandwagon of attempting to assist democratic transitions. The only questions left are how bloody such transitions will be and what kind of democratic, semi-democratic or authoritarian governments will emerge in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. In this regard, the Western world can for the first time play a positive role in shaping political transitions in the region.
The Western world can take a leadership role in supporting Ennahda through the provision of technical and financial support, giving assistance in organizing political parties, civil society, governance and rule of law. Such aid should be targeted at Islamic political parties that do not harbor extremist values and at least partially espouse liberal political beliefs. Such parties, while foreign to the Western understanding of government that separates church and state, are not something to be feared. They provide the best compromise between governments that are consistent with western liberal values yet reflect legitimate aspirations of the Arab street.
The past tells us that more often than not we cannot have it both ways: it is impossible to achieve both democracy and stability, both oil access and regional peace and both liberal governance and respect for Islamic culture. Today, for one of the first times in recent history, we can have our cake and eat it too. Respect for liberal values does not have to come at the exclusion of the legitimate aspirations of the Arab plurality for Islamic governance. Ensuring the success of Ennahda and the Tunisian revolution is the ideal first step. Such an action will for decades have positive repercussions across the region.