Last week, Beji Caïd Essebsi, Tunisia’s first popularly elected president following the uprising of 2010–2011, passed away while in office. His death didn’t lead to unrest in the country or uncertainty about what was to come next. Rather, it led to precisely what any stable system must provide—a peaceful transfer of power, according to an agreed upon set of norms, established in a constitutional document that the vast majority of citizens uphold.
In much of the West today we take that kind of transition for granted—though arguably we shouldn’t. However, in the Arab world this was nothing short of evidence that the revolution in Tunisia is continuing. But as Tunisia’s uprising becomes a more distant memory, and the challenge of sustaining good governance in the country continues, there are other issues to consider. Not least of these is political pluralism as it applies to political Islamists.
Only a few years ago, had a president passed away in Tunisia there would have been significant uncertainty about what stability would look like. And with good reason. The structural issues faced by Tunisia’s state, which remains in need of reform by easing regulatory and administrative constraints, appointing anti-corruption officials, and increasing access to finance, among other issues, all contribute to a system that cannot effectively keep up with the increase in the country’s population. This population is predominantly under 35, and the average age is dropping. That means that the creation of new jobs, quickly, is a necessity. Extremist Islamist violence continues to be a threat as well. All of these factors would have been causes for concern, particularly with regard to the possibility of infighting over who would take over power in the country.
Some of those concerns would have involved domestic considerations, whereas others would have related to external factors—a combination affecting the wider region. In recent years outside actors have been keenly involved in trying to shape the future of countries other than their own. These include several Gulf Cooperation Council states, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as others somewhat closer to Tunisia, such as Turkey.
As such, it is not enough for Tunisia to be “non-authoritarian.” Rather, for its experiment in good governance to continue, the most powerful forces in the country have to be actively and assertively anti-authoritarian. That requires a deepening of good governance and its improvement, because such an ambition does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it persists against odds from within Tunisia as well as against opponents from without.
If that sounds like a difficult experiment, that’s because it is one. However, and here is the crucial point, it is also the best way forward for Tunisia, and one that is far more intrinsically stable than any authoritarian model that might be offered as an alternative. If nothing else, Essebsi’s funeral last week showed this. Under an autocratic system the swift and easy transition of power would have been underpinned by much fear and doubt, with the possibility of instability. Under the Tunisian system, none of that happened.
More than that, there were those who pushed even further. The vice president of the Islamist Ennahda movement, Abdel-Fattah Morou, walked in Essebsi’s funeral procession, showing through his understated action how important it is today to respect and uphold the dignity of one’s political rivals in a system such as Tunisia’s. Many in the country—including Ennahda—can take credit for that kind of commitment to a new, anti-authoritarian order. But again, its existence cannot be taken for granted.
Indeed, there is an argument that it can never be taken for granted. The forces of populism have, for example, already affected and weakened the democratic institutions of countries such as my native United Kingdom, where some senior politicians have floated the idea of “proroguing,” in other words silencing, parliament in order to pass an extreme version of Brexit. There are many more such examples in the democratic West, and this is concerning at a moment when alternative poles of power, such as China, are on the rise internationally. We are in the midst of a historical realignment, where authoritarianism is being given a makeover. We must realize that.
Despite this, for nine years Tunisia has prevailed. It stands a good chance of continuing in that vein. The moderate Islamists of Ennahda have declared the possible beginning of a new path for themselves. A few years ago, the party announced it was no longer a part of the Islamist movement at all, portrayed itself as “Muslim Democrats,” akin to the Christian Democrats of Germany, albeit in a Muslim mold. Of all the political Islamist movements in the world, Ennahda is possibly the most moderate, and has been deeply committed to the success of Tunisia’s revolution, far more so than many of its non-Islamist counterparts. Ennahda’s frame of reference remains its assessment of what Islam does or does not allow, so religion is still important. Yet this can also be positive for Tunisia if Ennahda can show that religion in politics does not need to be divisive.
Nevertheless, Ennahda has also taken the measure of the political arena in which it operates, and has been careful not to create shocks in the system all at once. One way by which it has avoided doing so is by restricting the level of power it can wield in elected institutions, prioritizing the long-term durability of Tunisia’s democratic experiment over its own short-term partisan interests.
Yet, Ennahda may have now decided that after nine years the durability of the experiment is no longer in question as it once was. Rashed Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, declared in an interview last week with Bloomberg that he or another senior Ennahda member might seek the presidency if a power-sharing deal with the current prime minister could not be reached. On August 6, Abdel-Fattah Morou was named the Ennahda candidate for the presidency, following discussions in the Consultative Council. This is a change from the past, and will test the strength of the Tunisian experiment. Not because Ennahda itself weakens that experiment by running, but because its running may encourage others to attack the system out of a desire to keep Ennahda out of the presidential office.
Let no one underestimate what Tunisia has done to date. It isn’t perfect. The country has its problems. But the ongoing democratic experiment remains a great accomplishment for the people of Tunisia, for the region, and much further beyond. We could all stand to learn from it.