Lessons from the Historic Tunisian Elections

The Tunisian elections were the most significant domestic and national political development in the history of the modern Arab world since its creation a century ago.

I suspect that the Tunisian parliamentary elections were the most significant domestic and national political development in the history of the modern Arab world since its creation a century ago. Here is why I say this, and also what I believe we learn from the elections.

Never in ancient or modern Arab history has a citizenry of a country debated, written, validated and then put into action a constitution that reflects national values and also defines the organization of political life, the exercise of public authority, and the rights of citizens. Tunisians experienced some serious bumps in their transition to a constitutional democracy since they overthrew the tyranny of President Zein El-Abedeen Ben Ali in early 2011.

Tunisians accomplished this while suffering from serious economic pressures and social services disparities— especially among marginalized provincial populations — which confirms their commitment to addressing their socio-economic challenges through the participatory mechanisms of a pluralistic democracy. This is in sharp contrast with the hysteria and hallucinatory emotional excesses and fears that many Egyptians resorted to last year when they called in the armed forces to remove Mohammad Morsi, the elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood.

So the Tunisian experience since February 2011 offers evidence of three critical phenomena: the capacity of the Tunisian people to peacefully overthrow their former dictatorship, to affirm their desire to live in a pluralistic democracy, and to manage their vulnerable transition without succumbing to fear, greed, panic or chaos. Tunisians proved they were able to put their democratic values into practice, according to their own priorities and particularities.

The election victory of the new Nidaa Tounes party reflects a relatively sophisticated response by those smaller parties and political groupings who came together to form this alliance of former officials, secularists, progressives and leftists. This contrasted with the dozens of smaller groups that splintered the centrist-secular votes and allowed Ennahda to triumph in the 2012 elections and lead the coalition government.

This suggests — like the South African transition to democracy did — that members of the former regimes could be allowed to engage in political activity in the new democratic era, but they have to play by the new rules of democratic accountability and public legitimacy. It also indicates that politicians with somewhat different legacies and values could work together for a greater purpose than their own selfish incumbency on their own. That greater purpose that has achieved the triumph of Nidaa Tounes seems to have been the desire to defeat Ennahda, and to form a government that could reflect a degree of consensus among different groups, rather than a winner-take-all mentality.

The performance of Ennahda is an important historical marker: An Islamist party that won free democratic elections was allowed to rule at the head of a coalition government, largely failed to achieve the important goals that voters expected from it (jobs, economic expansion, security, social justice) then gave in to popular demand and stepped down in favor of a transitional government. This important precedent teaches Ennahda a valuable lesson about the realities of democratic accountability — if you do not deliver on your promises, the voters send you home. It also clarifies to the entire citizenry that Islamists can participate in pluralistic democratic practices and live to compete electorally another day after they lose a free and fair political contest.

Incumbent Islamists in Arab democracies were a novel sight in 2012 in Egypt and Tunisia. In 2013, they both also revealed their amateurism in governance, as they were unable to go beyond their sloganeering about Islam offering solutions to society’s challenges and citizens’ aspirations. The incumbency, failures and subsequent booting out of the Islamists democratically in Tunisia is the first time that Arab citizens electorally achieved a core principle of established Western democracies — to “throw the bums out” of office when the incumbents do not deliver on citizen expectations.

So this Tunisian experience is also a historic inaugural implementation of the principle of the consent of the governed, which has never pertained in Arab societies in an organized, democratic, constitutional and civil manner. We can be certain that the next prime minister — to be appointed only after the presidential election next month — will pay much more attention than in previous years to choosing an effective cabinet and prioritizing policies that respond to genuine citizen needs.

The democratic transition in Tunisia remains young and vulnerable, but it is indeed the first democratic transition in modern Arab history that has taken root in an environment of sustained citizen activism. I and millions of others hold out the hope that just as Tunisia sparked the series of Arab uprisings and revolutions in the past nearly four years, so will this brave little country lead the way again in prodding other Arabs to achieve a democratic transition, rather than only to yearn for it.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global