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Hussein Ibish

Two cheers for the Tunisian election

The recent preliminary Tunisian election results provide legitimate causes for concern, but overall the process and even the outcome are grounds for more optimism than pessimism. There are a number of crucial positive aspects that cannot be downplayed.

First, the fact that the vote took place and appears to have been free and fair is a milestone. Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab uprisings, is also the furthest along in the transition toward genuine post-dictatorship democracy.

Second, the exceedingly high voter turnout, over 90 percent, and the large number of participating parties, means the citizenry was genuinely engaged at a broad level. This can only be a good thing for genuinely representative government.

Third, the army appears to have taken a genuine decision to retreat from the political process and allow a popularly-driven system to shape the outcome of regime change.

Fourth, the election was for a Constituent Assembly that will draw up a new constitution for the country, meaning that a broad-based process will be shaping the structure of the new Tunisian system rather than top-down dictates. The outcome of such a process will almost certainly have more legitimacy than anything imposed by an elite and will have greater prospects for long-term stability.

What is less reassuring is the strong performance of the Islamist Al-Nahda Party, which garnered approximately 40 percent of the vote and will be by far the largest in the assembly. The party is often described as a “moderate Islamist” one, and compared to many others in the Arab world, that might be a plausible relative description.

But in fact, Nahda almost certainly remains quite radical in its ideology and long-term ambitions, so its prominent role in the new Tunisian political scene and constitution-crafting process is a legitimate source of concern.

Two important factors are significant grounds for reassurance, however.

First, collectively secularist parties garnered over 50 percent of the vote, meaning that Tunisia has not demonstrated an Islamist majority.

Nahda clearly knows that its core Islamist agenda has certainly not carried the day in any definitive sense. The statements of its leaders reflect an understanding that its future depends on recognizing that overreaching would be a kiss of death, and they have done their best to put the most moderate possible face on their program and intentions.

Second, Nahda appears set to form a coalition with a much smaller but influential secular and moderate socialist party, Ettakatol.

Critics complain that the upcoming marriage of convenience between Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jaâfar and Nahda is a cynical move by both that makes no ideological sense and is simply about gaining power for both within the new system.

This is exactly right, but should be seen as a positive development rather than a negative one. This is what parliamentary democracy looks like in practice everywhere: Parties make deals across unlikely ideological lines in order to create majorities, as currently seen in Britain, Israel and many other countries with strange-bedfellow coalitions. It means Tunisians are recognizing that compromise is the essence of this democratic form of politics.

Everyone will be watching the constitution-writing process carefully to see who is favored by its electoral systems and what limitations are placed on government powers, especially with regard to the rights of individuals, women and minorities. But the process of compromise is already underway.

These are very early days, but the Tunisian election suggests that post-dictatorship Arab democracy even with the powerful participation of Islamist parties is indeed possible.

Nahda's strong performance seems to have been more linked to its emphasis on social justice and economic issues than its reactionary religious agenda. Secular parties, by contrast, in spite of their strong showing overall, remain deeply divided and disorganized, and wasted most of the campaign maligning Nahda in terms that recalled the rhetoric of the former dictatorship rather than articulating their own vision for Tunisia's future. They especially failed to adequately address Tunisians' urgent economic concerns.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has obviously noted this element of Nahda's strong performance, moving to ramp up its already robust social services program and distribute cheap food for the recent Eid al-Adha festival.

The conclusions from Tunisia's election are that emergent Arab democracy seems more plausible than ever, even with robust Islamist participation. Islamists are better disciplined and organized than secularists but do not command automatic majorities, and secularists need to focus on articulating their own vision, organizing themselves as an alternative, and appealing to people's social and economic needs. Western societies that wish to see secularists and modernists do well should also move more robustly to help them overcome these deficiencies.

These are tentative baby steps toward the emergence of a real Arab democracy, but they are indispensable ones. So, in spite of the real grounds for concern about Nahda's future role, two cheers for the Tunisian election.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • al Nahda is a conservative party

    I don't know what is disturbing about a family values and traditional values based party getting 41 per cent of the vote in a democracy - sounds like the situation in Europe or North America, Indonesia or Turkey, Latin America or anywhere else in the democratic world. The leftist parties got around 37 per cent of the vote, with the remainder going to populist or business affiliated parties. That sounds very similar to the share of support these types of parties get in any democracy. The leader of the party has for years described sharia as justice, its role in the constitution to be a guiding values, not a prescriptive set of rules which are of course open to interpretation. The result I thought was excellent, better than I'd dare dream for

    November 8, 2011