Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Tunisia: The Last Hope of the Arab Spring

by Elliott Abrams
December 17, 2013


The “Arab Spring” has not brought the spread of peace, democracy, and human rights in the Arab world, which was the original hope. Neither Egypt, nor Syria, nor Libya have attained the conditions for which everyone in the United States hoped, nor has reform spread to the Gulf monarchies. But in Tunisia, there is still hope.

Tunisia was where the Arab revolts against dictators clothed in republican forms actually began, with the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. Since then there has been a rocky road, including considerable violence (though not by comparison with Syria, Libya, or Egypt). This week, the Islamist-led government of the Ennahda Party resigned, as part of a negotiated deal. As David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote, this event

marks an exceedingly rare occasion — probably the first time ever, anywhere — in which an Islamist party has voluntarily ceded political power, without civil war, mass violence, or military intervention of any kind. In this case the party is Ennahda, which led Tunisia’s ruling coalition after winning nearly 40 percent of the vote in the post-revolutionary election of October 2011, but has since come under increasing (yet nonviolent) popular pressure to step down and allow a long-overdue new election under a nonpartisan “technocratic” government….

[T]he birthplace of the Arab Spring is now teaching the region another valuable lesson: that it is possible, at least in principle, for a popularly elected Islamist government to relinquish power peacefully. It may well be that Tunisia’s exceptionally secular society, by regional standards, makes it an unlikely model for its neighbors. That trait is what deprived the Islamists of an absolute majority in the country’s first free elections two years ago, and also what ultimately pressured Ennahda into resigning last week.

An excellent story in The New York Times reports that “this small North African nation has once again broken new ground with a political deal between longtime enemies among the Islamists and the secular old guard.” A good deal of credit is due to the leaders of the two “sides,” the Islamists in the Ennahda Party and the secularists represented by a former prime minister: “Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who leads a new secular-minded political party, Nidaa Tounes, and Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, have starkly different visions of the country’s future. But since Tunisia’s political crisis flared this year, the two men have met one on one at least five times to try to find a political solution.”

For the moment they have found one, and we have to hope it lasts. Divisions in Tunisia are deep–between secularists and Islamists, between those who cooperated with the ancien regime and those who lived in exile, even between city and countryside. But Tunisia is a more modern society, with a larger middle class, closer ties to Europe, and a greater role for women, than is typical in the Arab world, and probably has the best chance of staying on a path to democracy. This compromise deal was not easy to achieve and may fail, but if it succeeds it will remind the world of the goals of many of those who rose up in the Arab revolts–dignity, justice, and some hope for democracy. So we should be rooting for the Tunisians, and the United States should be looking carefully at what we can do through economic aid, political support, and help in the international financial institutions. The Arab world needs a successful model of electoral democracy.

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