The news that Tunisia’s Islamists have agreed to stand down from government in three weeks has been hailed as a victory for a peaceful, inclusive postrevolutionary process in Tunisia. (The implicit, and explicit, contrast is with the upheaval and chaos of Egypt.) And it is that. But it is also a victory for the secular opposition in Tunisia.
In a few months, it will be three years since the most tumultuous events of the modern Middle East began. Three years of uprisings, revolutions and uncertainty have followed.
Such has been the complexity and duration of the Arab uprisings that many are tempted to declare them victorious, or incomplete, or dead, or successfully countered. In truth, none of these is accurate. Each country progressed differently. What seemed like an Islamist wave has crashed in Egypt and now Tunisia. What seemed like progress has stalled and reversed in Yemen and Libya. What seemed a foregone conclusion in Syria has turned into a war without end.
In Tunisia, the country that sparked the uprisings, the removal of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011 brought in a long transition period that was dominated by Ennahda, the major Islamist party that spent decades underground.
But sympathy for Ennahda faded after the party made some foolish mistakes – seeking, in one instance, to reverse decades of official gender equality – and then, particularly, this year after two opposition politicians were gunned down.
There was no suggestion that Ennahda was involved but opponents charged that the Islamist group had been too accommodating of the fringe Salafist movement that was accused of the killings. The first Islamist-led coalition collapsed and, since the murder in July of Mohammed Brahmi, it looked likely that Ennahda would have to leave office.
What has happened in Tunisia over the past few months has had more to do with internal politics than wider trends. But the country is not unaffected by them. After Brahmi was killed, mass protests against Ennahda took place, aiming to topple them. The protesters were explicit about their wish to emulate their Egyptian neighbours, who, three weeks earlier, had forced Mohammed Morsi from the presidential palace. They even named their protest movement Tamarrod, after the Egyptian movement that toppled him. Ennahda saw the upheaval of Egypt and recognised a dangerous moment.
Ennahda were willing to compromise to a certain extent, but what really pushed them to resign was the concerted effort from all elements of the secular opposition. That, in a post-Arab Spring country, is unprecedented.
Tunisia’s secular opposition had reacted to the demise of Ben Ali and the rise of Ennahda in different ways.
After elections to the Constituent Assembly in 2011 – the body tasked with drawing up a new, post-Ben Ali constitution – two smaller secular parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, allied with Ennahda in a governing coalition.
The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which had been during the Ben Ali era the major opposition to Ben Ali’s political party, expected to do well but did very badly, tarnished as collaborators with the previous regime. The PDP eventually dissolved itself and reformed in a merger with other parties as the Republican Party.
It is this Republican Party, led by the formidable Maya Jribi, who previously led the PDP, that has been relentless in attacking Ennahda. But with two secular coalition parties, Ennahda had a certain amount of political cover.
In the past year, however, as opposition to Ennahda increased, there has been a swirl of activity and alliances among the secular parties and the wider labour movement. Secular parties like the Republican Party and Nidaa Tounis came together under the umbrella National Salvation Front, allied with the General Labour Union. Others, like the Democratic Alliance, sought independent negotiations with Ennahda. At the same time, a vibrant grassroots campaign brought thousands on to the streets, continuing the pressure.
All of this, from the outside, can seem like the complicated detail of politics and parties. But the end result has been the steady coming together of secular parties around the idea that Ennahda had lost legitimacy and a new political compact was needed.
This culminated in what was almost certainly the decisive blow against the Ennahda-led coalition, when, last month, the head of the Constituent Assembly, and member of the secular Ettakatol, suspended the Assembly.
Secular parties have not done well out of the Arab Spring. Partly that was because they were often, in some form, present under the old regimes, and suffered from the association. But the secular movement has also not had the backing of political parties to carry forward their message and create policies.
Worst of all, secular parties and movements have been disorganised, torn between those willing to take a gamble on Islamists brought to power by the ballot box and those mistrustful of the motives of Islamists.
What Tunisia shows is that, finally, secular parties are emerging from the shadow of Islamists and are finding common ground on at least some issues – enough common ground, at least, that allows for the creation of a viable secular opposition. As so often in the Arab Spring, Tunisia is at the centre of this trend, an experiment that could yet spread across the region.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai