September 29, 2014
Host: The U.S. Institute of Peace
Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, President & Founder, Ennahdha Party, Tunisia
For three years now, the Arab word has struggled to adjust to the massive change that was brought in with the Arab Spring. Of the numerous groups of citizens that took to the streets and demanded greater political freedoms and representation, very few can say that the movement was a success: In Libya and Syria, the political reforms have come to be overshadowed by protracted armed conflicts; in Egypt, political differences and divides resulted in a coup against the country’s first democratically elected leader. Of all these attempts to reform and transform the political landscape in the Middle East, only one country has shown signs of success, Tunisia – the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Like other countries in the region, Tunisia has faced a threat by ideological extremists – the al Qaeda affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia – and also endured several political assassinations. However, unlike other participants in the Arab Spring, it now stands poised to hold its first presidential elections in November. This fact, and the peaceful means through which it was achieved, has led many analysts and leaders around the globe to ask: Why and how has Tunisia succeeded?
To answer this question, Sheikh Ghannouchi highlighted several factors that he believes were instrumental in cultivating and preserving a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic society in Tunisia. Chief amongst these factors was Tunisia’s dedication to inclusivity and minority representation when establishing a new political order. Following the ousting of President Ben Ali, the political party Ennahdha, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, dominated the Tunisian political landscape. However, unlike the Brotherhood, Ennahdha refused to rule based on its simple majority; rather than focus on simply garnering 51% of the vote, the group worked to compromise and respect minority positions. By honoring what he called, “consensus politics” Mr. Ghannouchi and his Ennahdha party worked with smaller parties throughout parliament to draft a constitution and electoral timeline, both of which were approved by 94% by the constituent assembly and a vast majority of the people.
In addition, to promoting inclusive and tolerant politics, Mr. Ghannouchi believes that Tunisia also benefited from its neutral armed forces. Not only did the army provide protection to the people during the initial unrest but it also refused to act on its own unilateral interests – the opposite of what has happened in Egypt. Acting as a true third party, the army has not become involved in the country’s politics. By remaining uninvolved, the army has given each political party the freedom to promote their own platform – whether they are secular or ideologically driven – and remove any doubt that there is favoritism in Tunisian politics. In the environment, it is clear that the only strength political parties can rely on is the strength of their own platforms.
With these successes in mind, it is important to remember that there are still several key challenges facing Tunisia. Although the country has, for the most part, succeeded in fostering a democratic spolitical system, it must now work on making sure other aspects of its society reflect this new Tunisia. This means stamping out corruption, reforming the judiciary, and, perhaps most importantly, creating jobs and economic opportunities. However, while Tunisians must depend on themselves to stamp out corruption and tackle domestic challenges, it is up to the rest of the world to trust and invest in Tunisia’s future. Although many in the West may be reluctant to engage in the Arab world, having witnessed the ongoing barbaric violence in Syria, it is important that these foreign countries recognize that there are still pockets of opportunity and potential. As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has already succeeded in changing the Middle East once. Now, given the proper resources and support, it can do so again, to show that democracy can exist, prosper, and thrive in the Arab world.