x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tunisia's test of unity comes after the ballots are tallied

There are three lessons for Tunisians as they begin to govern themselves: focus on policy not politics, stay cohesive and stick with the democratic process.

Last week in La Goulette, a suburb of the Tunisian capital Tunis, the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali returned. An enormous portrait of the ousted president was hung from one of the walls of the old city, drawing shocked, even frightened, looks from passers-by. Finally, the people watching got angry and banded together to tear down the image. Behind it was another poster with a simple message: "Beware, dictatorship can return. On October 23rd, vote."

The poster stunt was made and filmed by a citizen's group, part of a blizzard of media over the past few weeks urging citizens to vote in Sunday's election. The message was received: millions of voters turned out to cast their ballot.

It is astonishing to think that barely 10 months ago Tunisia was still ruled by Ben Ali, with no end to his rule in sight. Now, huge numbers of Tunisians have come out to vote, many doing so for the first time in their lives.

Official results from the election are expected today; the Islamists of Ennahda are likely to garner a significant share of seats. But this is not the end. Rather, it is the end of the beginning for Tunisia's revolution.

The groups most active with media stunts and on social networking sites over the past few months have been liberals, partly because their demographic is young, and partly because they most fear that, without a big turnout, Islamists will dominate the new constitutional committee that the election will create.

Liberals have some reason to be concerned. Although the Islamists of Ennahda have been pragmatic and conciliatory in their public statements, some of their supporters have been troublesome.

When protests broke out in Tunis two weeks ago against the screening of the Iranian animated film Persepolis that some deemed blasphemous, it reawakened fears among liberal-minded Tunisians that an Islamist government might pander to such sentiment and stifle creativity. The leadership of Ennahda condemned the protests. But, at the least, a strong showing by Ennahda might empower such protesters to push for more changes.

These are real concerns. Yet liberals need not overly fear that Islamists will dominate the political landscape forever or impose repressive rule, even if they dominate one or two political cycles. There are three lessons for Tunisia's liberals today, in the event of an Islamist triumph.

The first is to focus on policy rather than politics. Islamism is part of the political landscape of the Arab world and Ennahda may yet turn out to be liberal in government. Liberal, of course, in the sense of not feeling the need to impose a certain set of views on everyone. If that's the case, liberals will probably be able to find an accommodation with some of Ennahda's policies.

This is all to the good: finding points of connection and compromise will mean all parties and ideas get to work together on policies on which they jointly agree. Liberal parties, legal but marginalised under Ben Ali, had some experience of government and this will prove useful to the politically sophisticated but policy-light Islamists.

The biggest issues facing Tunisians today are not religious but political ones, and they are political issues - such as corruption, state-building and a stagnant economy - to which there is not really a religious answer.

The second message is, stay cohesive. The revolution that ousted Ben Ali was not a revolution of Islamist or liberal Tunisians; it was a revolution of Tunisians. That same vision of an inclusive society is what all sides must maintain. There will be times, in the rough and tumble of politics, when each side will claim their mandate from the electorate allows them to pursue particular policies. But the greater mandate will forever be stained in the blood of those who gave their lives to free Tunisia from dictatorship.

The last lesson for liberals may be the hardest to swallow in the years ahead: protect the process. The political process is everything. Even if Islamists dominate a new government, as long as the political process works, there is always the opportunity for liberals to return to power. Ultimately the form of government that best represents the aims of the revolution is a pluralistic, representative one, and if the political process is maintained, liberals will always be able to capitalise on their support in the country.

The coercion that liberals so fear is the same coercion that was imposed on Islamists in the past few decades, a state-sanctioned attempt to decide personal behaviour. If the new government can avoid that in all its forms, it will have fulfilled a big part of the aims of the revolution.

Tunisia's revolution is just beginning. This election marks the end of the beginning of the process. It is a chance to celebrate the achievements of the past nine months, even if, inevitably, not everyone who participated in ousting Ben Ali will see their chosen parties in power. For liberals in particular, this election is filled with trepidation as they embark on a journey that might see their dearly-held personal freedom curtailed.

It is astonishing how far Tunisia has come in just a few short months. Concerns still abound but there is every reason to believe that this revolution will not be revised.



Follow the writer on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai