Tunisia’s democracy reached a stage where it can be taken for granted?
democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring recently passed not one but two tests
with flying colours. One got a great deal of attention: The reassuringly
drama-free transition of power after the death of its president, nonagenarian
Beji Caid Al Sebsi. The other, a pair of suicide bombings in the capital on
June 27, went unnoticed by much of the world. Unlike previous instances of
terrorism in Tunis, there were no anxieties about the country’s stability as
the authorities responded with studied calm.
But a third
test may be looming, as the country prepares for a presidential election next
month, followed by parliamentary polls the following month: Can Tunisians
accept being ruled by Islamists? Other Arab states have tried, and mostly
failed. In next-door Algeria, a 1991 vote won by Islamists was overturned by an
alliance between secular politicians and the military.
Tunisians toppled their dictator in 2011, they have avoided handing absolute
authority to either the secularists or Islamists, forcing them to collaborate
in a delicate balance of power. In the 2014 election, no party won a clear
majority. Al Sebsi and Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Al Nahda
party, arrived at a modus vivendi. After the secular coalition fractured last
year, Prime Minister Yousuf Chahed was able to keep governing with Al Nahda’s support.
now running for presidency. In the next few days, Ghannouchi will decide
whether to challenge him and turn the September 15 vote into a contest between
the country’s most prominent secularist and its most powerful Islamist. Unless
the two men can arrive at a power-sharing deal, the battle lines will be
repeated for the October 6 parliamentary election.
secular forces divided between Chahed and Al Sebsi’s son Hafed, the Islamists
could wind up controlling both levers of power. (The Tunisian constitution
gives the prime minister much of the governing responsibility, but also vests
the presidency with substantial powers, especially over security and foreign
Whether Gannouchi runs for parliament (which would make him the favourite, to
become prime minister) or president, he will wield direct political power for
the first time. He has never run for political office. Many Tunisian
secularists — and especially the young protesters who started the Arab Spring —
remain deeply suspicious of his religious views, even though they are much more
moderate than the kind espoused by, say, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Al Nahda
now prefers the term ‘Muslim Democrat’ to ‘Islamist’, but as I discovered
during a reporting trip to Tunis in February, many Tunisians believe that this
is merely a mask.
the election could make the question of Islamist power academic by reprising
the 2014 outcome, with no party getting a majority in parliament. But if the
recent past is any guide, this would make for messy politics, the harder for
the government — Islamist or secular — to undertake difficult, but necessary,
brings us to Tunisia’s ultimate test: In the absence of an economic turnaround,
how long can its democracy be taken for granted? Whatever else it is, that
question is not academic.
Ghosh is a columnist who writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the
Source: The Gulf News