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The regional impact of Tunisia's elections

Tunisia's upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections could show how to limit Islamists' influence via a free democratic system

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Wednesday 15 Oct 2014
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It is unclear if the war on the Islamic State will leave much room for the western media to cover something as important as Tunisia's parliamentary elections slated for 26 October and the presidential race on 23 November. However, even holding such elections in the Arab world – afflicted by the scourge of IS and such groups, as well as chronic dictatorships – is reason enough for the world to turn its eyes to Tunisia.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon did come to Tunisia less than two weeks before the elections to declare: "It is an experiment that demonstrates democracy is possible through consensus."

However, general terms such as the "Tunisian experience" and "Tunisian model", as the leader of Tunisia's Islamist Al-Nahda party Rached Ghannouchi repeatedly noted in his speech at Yale University at the end of September, runs the risk of acknowledging an exception that cannot be repeated or duplicated. It is true this exception has unique merits, such as high levels of education, a strong civil society, strong bonds with Europe and its culture, as well as a form of political Islam that embraces modernisation and a heritage of human rights.

However, these claims of Tunisia's uniqueness reminds us of past discrimination such as exempting Arabs from democracy, as if it were the destiny of Arabs to always live under despotic regimes in the name of nationalism, religion or both. Thus, they were untouched by changes that swept the globe during world revolutions from the age of industry to the age of the Internet. And they have been unmoved by the overthrow of dictatorships and the spread of democracy in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the past quarter century.

Geographically, "small" Tunisia is flanked by two giant, oil-rich Arab neighbours: Libya and Algeria. Libya is suffering from a long civil war, with two governments in power and numerous militias loyal to tribes, clans and rival regions. Meanwhile, Algeria lost nearly 200,000 people during a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s, and is now moving towards an unknown future, with an ailing president who was re-elected for a fourth term and a disfigured deficient democracy ruled by generals. Furthermore, Tunisia's border with both neighbours is prone to infiltration by terrorist groups.

As a result of such an unstable geographic location, the main Tunisian political parties contesting the elections have focused on regional cooperation in combating terrorism, which has struck inside Tunisia in the past three years in an unprecedented manner. The wager on regional cooperation this time is accompanied with a conviction that a security solution alone is not enough, and that economic, political and cultural solutions to ensure domestic cohesion are just as important.

The aspirations of a large portion of Tunisian politicians – reflected in their electoral platforms – focus on making Tunisia the regional centre for global services, connecting Africa with Europe. However, establishing security and political stability are a precondition to this goal, which implies a cause and effect relationship between efforts to combat terrorism while preparing for an economic boom.

Naturally, terrorists of all hues including Salafist jihadists oppose the success of the Tunisian experiment of transforming into a democracy, but they are not alone. There are regional forces and states – for various reasons including their own domestic conditions – which do not want to see an end to despotism and terrorism, and are very distraught to see a successful democratic model in the Arab region. Tunisia is prudent to take into consideration the reality of the official Arab order and avoid becoming embroiled in hostilities that may be viewed as interference in the affairs of other states by democratically elected Tunisian officials.

Accordingly, one can understand the promise by the leftist Popular Front – expected to finish third in the parliamentary elections – of restoring diplomatic ties with Damascus in the first 100 days if they are part of the government.

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of Tunisian elections and their impact on the region, local and other domestic considerations related to the decline of Islamists' power from Iraq to Morocco make it likely that the Islamist Al-Nahda will be weaker than after the Constitutional Assembly elections in 2011. This does not mean it will have no chance at participating in a new coalition government alongside secular parties. The outcome of the elections will be an important lesson in the possibility of defeating Islamists or curbing their influence through free and transparent elections. Election results could also result in tempering Tunisia's foreign policy and moving towards improving relations with countries such as Egypt. This improvement is already noted in cooperation between the two countries in dealing with the problem of Egyptian expatriate workers who have sought refuge in Tunisia from Libya.

If my friend and writer Alain Gresh believes Tunisia has a chance for a historic rapprochement between political Islam and secular forces – inspired by the reconciliation between the left and right in Europe, including Communists, Christians and Democrats – the attraction of the Tunisian model in achieving such a conciliation will be paramount. This will be irrespective of Tunisia's size in the Arab regional order, and limitations in terms of size, population and resources available compared to other more pivotal and influential states.

The most important lesson from Tunisia is that democracy is difficult but possible.
 

The writer is a political analyst and journalist at Al-Ahram daily newspaper. He is the author of several books on Tunisian politics, including "The Lookalikes: Mubarak and Ben Ali"

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