Tunisia’s Perilous Path to Freedom

SHAFAQNA – As 2014 drew to a close, Tunisia was in the midst of electoral excitement, with parliamentary elections in October, presidential elections in November and a runoff between presidential candidates in December. With negotiations continuing over the formation of a new government, we are witnessing democracy in action. This is no small feat for Tunisia.

In just three years since the Arab Spring, our small country has made significant progress and is an example of how to craft an inclusive democratic system. Yet Tunisia is still fragile, as we learn not only to establish democratic institutions but to sustain an inclusive democratic culture.

Like many of its neighbors, Tunisia’s democratic history is brief. The previous dictatorial regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali denied Tunisians their civic, political, social and economic rights. Popular sovereignty was a dream. Government was a tool to impose authority and extract privileges.

The country has undergone a remarkable shift since the end of the Ben Ali era, with rivals becoming competitors and the desire to win at the polls replacing the goal of oppressing or eliminating alternative viewpoints. These competitors are now partners in safeguarding Tunisia’s stability.

After the 2011 elections, Ennahda, or the Renaissance Party, one of Tunisia’s oldest and most established political parties, led a coalition government to elect a Constituent Assembly and write a constitution that would reflect the electorate’s diverse views. As a moderate Islamic party that had for decades borne the brunt of state repression, Ennahda was determined to strengthen the country’s democratic transition. We helped create a human-rights ministry, established the Arab world’s first national commission against torture, and doubled state investment in marginalized and impoverished regions. We also contributed to writing the Arab world’s most progressive constitution through a national dialogue in which all political parties participated.

The Ennahda-led coalition handed over power in early 2014 to a technocratic government to safeguard the democratic transition and pave the way for our October parliamentary elections. This ensured our country remained stable and united, unlike some of Tunisia’s neighbors, where chaos replaced autocracy. Nidaa Tounes, or Call of Tunisia, emerged from the elections with a plurality, with Ennahda not far behind. Ennahda immediately accepted the results, congratulated the winners and reiterated our call for cooperation across all parties.

There are many lessons here for other countries undergoing a democratic transition. Tunisia’s success has been built on consensus. This has prevented fragile democratic institutions from collapsing due to political conflict. Tunisia’s commitment to inclusion also allowed us to navigate questions of transitional justice and begin addressing decades of inequality and an economy plagued by inherited structural problems. There can be no majority or minority when building the foundations of democracy.

The decision not to nominate an Ennahda presidential candidate reflected our willingness to make sacrifices to prevent polarization. Domination by any one political faction risks a return to the authoritarianism under which Tunisians suffered for three decades. Our country needs a strong government supported by as many of the main parties as possible to be able to make necessary reforms and to tackle the big obstacles that it faces. This is why we have received President Beji Caid Essebsi ’s appointment of an independent prime minister positively, and will deal positively with the new government. Tunisia’s vibrant political culture, tradition of debate and dialogue, and moderate population helped us get here and will ensure we don’t return to the days of old.

While we have seen success, extremist movements in the region are still on the rise, and this affects us all. Ennahda condemns in the strongest terms the terrible events that occurred last week in Paris, along with those who perpetrated and supported them. We stand in solidarity with the victims, their families and the people of France.

For young people who feel hopeless and disaffected, the allure of extremism can be strong. Terrorism threatens to overwhelm young, emerging democracies that are still working to establish new institutions and practices, and to return them to the sectarian excesses that contributed to human-rights abuses in a previous era.

Europe can play a vital role in sustaining Tunisia’s progress and promoting an alternative. Increased foreign direct investment and trade can create high-skilled jobs that provide social mobility, strengthen our society and limit the appeal of extremist groups. Simultaneously, it will offer European companies with operations in Tunisia a high-quality gateway to Africa. The combination of increased regional security and business growth can only be a positive for Tunisia and Europe.

Similarly, our allies can help tackle common security threats. This will ensure democracy has the secure space to develop, citizens are comfortable expressing their views, our leaders are able to govern in safety and our shared security interests are protected. Stability in Tunisia can be a beacon for countries in conflict across the region. Our success will go a long way to strengthen a democratic model of good governance in the Arab world and serve as the best argument against an extreme discourse followed by a marginal minority.

Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring and is proud to be the success story in this difficult period. Every day, Tunisian politicians, civil servants and civil-society members work to implement our new constitution, reform public administration and improve our economy. But Tunisia’s democratic transition remains unfinished and cannot be taken for granted. Tunisia’s friends in Europe can help ensure our continued progress, a contribution that will benefit not just Tunisia but the rest of the region and beyond.

Mr. Ghannouchi is the founder and president of the Ennahda Party of Tunisia.

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