SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
Joseph A. Kechichian
In the ongoing wars between reformers and extremists, Tunisians scored a major victory this week when they voted for moderate forces to lead parliamentary life. Nida Tunis, a predominantly secular party came first, followed by the heavily Islamist Al Nahda party, whose chairman, the charismatic Rashid Gannoushi, conceded defeat. Remarkably, and despite oodles of pessimism emanating from challenged Orientalist Western writers, the general election strengthened democracy in the cradle of the Arab Spring. By voting for reforms instead of revolution, Tunisians reinforced the notion that Arabs, yes Arabs, were capable of change without resorting to extremism.
In the four years after Mohammad Bu Azizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010, analysts filled every imaginable news outlet with disparaging comments about the Arab Spring, unwilling to believe that significant changes were under way in Tunisia and elsewhere that, truth be told, awakened an entire nation. To be sure, the world also witnessed the rise of the comical Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in June 2014, who pretended to be the leader of an “Islamic State” that was neither Islamic nor a state. Notwithstanding the self-appointed caliph’s aspirations to fulfil a chimerical caliphate that would stretch across the Arab heartland, and in the aftermath of a war that unified dozens of “states” ready and willing to defend the concept, Tunisians provided clearer answers.
Indeed, the first parliamentary elections since the fall of the Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali regime in 2011, tamed Al Nahda’s initial euphoria. Along with their rejections of an array of leftist and Islamist groups that articulated various planks, voters opted to entrust governance to secularists. Of course, no single party won an outright majority to govern alone, which necessitated a coalition government, though this was far better that the proverbial confusion that was on display in Egypt and Yemen after bitter campaigns divided those two countries’ populations.
Critics affirmed that the election that ushered in Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi into the Yemeni presidency should have been respected in the same way as the most recent Tunisian results. In the event, opposition forces embarked on an outright war in Sana’a. Few were surprised at these outcome, especially since significant Iranian intervention in Yemen ensured some of the ongoing confrontations there. Unlike Egyptians and Yemenis, Tunisians, however, manoeuvred political challenges with dexterity, and while some may still contest results, in reality, Sunday’s elections reflected a fresh awareness that personal interests were ensured when citizens demonstrated consensus on core issues.
Even Gannoushi acknowledged that what was important was national unity. “Whoever comes out top, Nida or Al Nahda, the main thing is that Tunisia needs a government of national unity, a political consensus,” Gannoushi declared as he hammered the point home that this is “the policy that has saved the country from what other Arab Spring countries are going through”. Tunisia is not out of the proverbial woods by any stretch of the imagination. However, these parliamentary elections create new opportunities to ensure the transition from militancy and social unrest to genuine reforms that would, presumably, focus on development programmes.
The country’s main challenges are still poverty and unemployment, the main reasons why Bu Azizi, the dejected street vendor, set himself on fire even as he also protested the injustice imposed on him when a poorly trained female municipal worker — a typical official in so many senses of the word — humiliated the struggling young man as she confiscated his modest wares.
No one ought to deny that these key factors — poverty, unemployment, and shameful authoritarianism at the lower ranks — are still the key factors that preoccupy Tunisians and many other Arabs.
Mercifully, the whole parliamentary campaign revolved around the economy and security, presumably to help resolve existing dilemmas. Much more is required to declare mission accomplished, although no one should take anything away from sophisticated Tunisians who have articulated a clear alternative and openly rejected bloodshed. It remains to be seen whether government officials will uphold the law and rule with justice.
For now, Tunisia has averted the disasters the world sees in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, although militant activities are on the rise in Tunisia as well. In 2013, two opposition lawmakers were assassinated by suspected Islamists while unverified reports claimed that a contingent of nearly 3,000 Tunisians were fighting with Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Such developments do not bode well for democratisation, though what is also amply clear is that Al Nahda had failed to address basic economic concerns, which was probably why it lost these elections. By all accounts, much work remains throughout the Arab world, stretching from Egypt to Yemen and, in the case of the burning Levant, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. However, we should rejoice that Tunisians have now shown everyone the way to proceed. There will be ups and downs in the process of change even if no one should disparage this victory.