Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Behind Tunisia’s quiet revolution lies an ugly truth

Tunisians must stick to the values of their revolution and work on solving the country's security and economic dilemmas, writes HA Hellyer
Supporters of Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) stage a demonstration ahead of the parliamentary election in the coastal city of Hammam Lif, south of Tunis, on October 21. Fethi Belaid / AFP
Supporters of Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) stage a demonstration ahead of the parliamentary election in the coastal city of Hammam Lif, south of Tunis, on October 21. Fethi Belaid / AFP

This weekend, Tunisians will go to the polls to elect a parliament. In this, the brightest light of the Arab Spring thus far, the Tunisian people continue to show themselves as capable of fulfilling the promise of their revolution. They also have many struggles ahead that should not be underestimated.

As inevitable as the revolutionary uprisings were – given the repression and inequity of the societies in which they occurred – it was also entirely predictable that there would be political dynamics that would hinder their success. This is certainly true within Tunisia. The tensions between the Islamist Ennahda movement, who won the country’s last elections, and their non-Islamist and secularist opponents could have easily derailed the country’s transition.

The role of the Tunisian military in encouraging a compromise is often left unstated. It is also notable that the strong and influential trade union movement in the country was critical in staging a space for political negotiations.

But Ennahda leadership deserves credit. The most powerful single political force in the country was able to sacrifice short-term gain for the benefit of Tunisia’s revolution by giving up power to a technocratic government. So, too, their opponents – both those who supported the revolution as well as those who were part of the establishment before the uprising – deserve praise for being able to move past the impasse.

For the first time in the Arab world’s modern history, a political compromise between Islamists and non-Islamists produced a consensus-based constitution. Everyone in Tunisia’s political elite, which populated the constitutional assembly, deserves credit for that process and its result. No one faction should rob the other of recognition for this accomplishment.

But Tunisia does not exist in a vacuum, nor can it withstand realities beyond this political environment. Tunisia, which many describe as the country with the largest percentage of Arab secularists, has also contributed a disproportionately large number of recruits for radical Islamist groups. No less than 3,000 Tunisians are fighting in Iraq and Syria, learning skills that they may bring back and use in Tunisia.

The sudden opening of the political space after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 meant that pro-revolutionary groups found room to operate – as too did radical forces that opposed the progressive nature of the revolution’s core.

Many in Tunisia were blissfully unaware of that threat, but it will have been brought to mind on Thursday after violent pre-election skirmishes broke out on the outskirts of Tunis, resulting in the death of one policeman and injuries to several others.

Senior leaders admit they underestimated the extremist contingent, thinking they would be able to win them over. They hoped that extremists would see the benefits of an open and democratic system, or at least be co-opted by more mainstream groups like Ennahda. Their hopes proved to be misguided. It’s an error, but one which all of Tunisia’s political elite appears to realise, regardless of ideological standing.

But the full consequences of that threat have yet to emerge. The majority of Tunisian fighters in Iraq and Syria have not returned home yet. What happens when they do? The fullness of the security problems emanating from Tunisians fighting in Libya hasn’t been grasped yet. Tunisia has a critical security issue that will require vigilance.

As Tunisians go to the polls, they may think they are simply electing a new parliament. But that would be underestimating the task ahead of them. Tunisia’s challenges are many – indeed, many wise Tunisians recognise that the uprising was not a solution to the country’s problems, but a valve that avoided the problems getting much worse. It will require a continued willingness of all major Tunisian forces to engage with each other, Islamist and non-Islamist alike, to address the country’s economic woes and security concerns. They will need to do so while remaining faithful to the promise of a freer and more just Tunisia.

In truth, Tunisia’s election is about the continuation of the revolution, in a deeper and more mature fashion, balancing issues around security and economic dilemmas. Tunisians have proven themselves worthy of the promise of 2011 – and Arabs across the region ought to value Tunisia’s revolution as something to cherish and support.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

Twitter: @hahellyer

Updated: October 23, 2014 04:00 AM