tunisia

Two Lessons from the Tunisian Election

The victory of the secular party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) in the parliamentary election on Sunday carries two lessons for observers of transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The first one is broadly optimistic, but the second one should be a cause for concern, heralding economic, social, and political troubles ahead.

1. The Arab Spring was not a one-way street to religious fundamentalism.

Fragility of Tunisia’s Transition

The upcoming parliamentary election in Tunisia comes at a critical time. For a while, Tunisia was seen as a poster child for a successful transition away from authoritarianism. In Egypt, a widespread disappointment with an Islamic government resulted in a military coup last year. In contrast, when Tunisia could not get through a political impasse, the Islamic Ennahda party negotiated a handover to a caretaker government earlier this year, which has led the country to an early election.

Regardless of whether Ennahda can repeat its electoral success from three years ago or whether secular forces take over, the new Tunisian government will be in an unenviable position: it will have to address a growing security crisis in the country. In the past two years, the country has seen the emergence of political violence and terrorism perpetrated mostly by radical Salafist groups. Those violent efforts include the killings of two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, as well as a car bomb plot foiled just last week.

Tunisia has also become a fertile ground for the recruitment of fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS). Some estimate that over 2,400 ISIS fighters are from Tunisia, which would make Tunisians the most numerous nationality fighting for ISIS. Restoring basic security, order, and rule of law—and preventing the country from descending into a full-fledged internal conflict—will have to be a priority for the new government.

The political violence may have multiple roots, but Tunisia’s poor economic performance is clearly one of them. In recent years, many strikes and protests over economic conditions have taken a violent turn and led to attacks on local police stations, for example.

While the West is confronted with problems posed by aging populations, Tunisia, like other countries in the region, faces the challenge (and opportunity) of harnessing the economic potential of an extremely young workforce. Practically half of Tunisians are under the age of 30, and many of them are struggling. Although unemployment is slowly falling, the unemployment rate among university-educated young Tunisians is over 30 percent, making their situation precarious.

Coping with the Legacy of Arab Socialism

Countries of the Arab Spring suffer from many economic, social, and political ills. At their center lies the unfortunate legacy of Arab Socialism, which established itself in the region during the 1950s and 1960s. One of its features, besides the ideology of Pan-Arabism and international ‘non-alignment,’ was an emphasis on government ownership and industrial planning.

The President’s Next Middle East Speech

The news media is abuzz with speculation about what President Obama will say in an address this Thursday at the State Department. The topic is the Middle East, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained, “we’ve gone through a remarkable period in the first several months of this year…in the Middle East and North Africa,” and the president has “some important things to say about how he views the upheaval and how he has approached the U.S.

Mubarak Steps Down … Finally

Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down as president of Egypt is welcome news. He could have taken a cue from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, resigning quickly in the face of overwhelming popular opposition. Such a move on Mubarak’s part would have avoided much of the confusion that has gripped Egypt for more than two weeks. At least 300 people have been killed during the protests, but thankfully Mubarak’s exit was achieved without even more bloodshed.

Another View of Tunisia

On Saturday, inspired by Fareed Zakaria’s writings on “illiberal democracy,” I expressed concerns about the prospect of quick elections in Tunisia, a country that has not had a free press, an independent judiciary, or other elements of liberalism. Khelil Bouarrouj, a Tunisian-American libertarian, thinks I am overly pessimistic. Here’s what he wrote me:

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:

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