Arab Spring falters, but Tunisian democracy thrives

Egypt is in a full-blown constitutional crisis. Syria is in a borderline civil war. Yemen elected its former vice president — who ran unopposed. Is the Arab Spring dead? If not, where is it living?

And the winner is . . . Tunisia, where it all started in December 2010 after a frustrated fruit seller set himself on fire. As you read these words, a freely elected assembly is drafting a new constitution from scratch. The coalition government has faced challenges, but it is functioning. A lively press and an active political class, both inside the 217-seat constituent assembly and outside it, are criticizing like crazy. Unions are pressuring the government to create more jobs, and the government is trying to do what it can without throwing fiscal responsibility to the winds.

Meanwhile, the Islamist democrats who won the most seats in the election have made an important announcement about Islamic law, or Shariah — that it won’t be mentioned in the constitution at all.

Tunisia is not all the way there, but having visited the country this month, I found it hard to escape the conclusion that this is what a democratic revolution is supposed to look like. If democracy is going to work in the Arabic-speaking world, Tunisia is becoming the model. If it fails in Tunisia, the prospects for every place else are very grim indeed.

The most important player in Tunisia’s democratic experiment is the Ennahda party, led by Rashid Ghannouchi, the most important Islamic democratic thinker of the last 25 years. Tunisia’s Islamists didn’t start the fire of the revolution. For years their party had been banned and its leaders exiled and jailed (Ghannouchi spent most of this time in London, preaching his distinct blend of moderate-yet-faithful Islam and liberal democratic values.)

Yet when Tunisia held its first free elections months after President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali’s departure last year, Ennahda strongly outpolled the various secular parties of the center- left and center-right that had sprung up in the Tunisian spring. Superior organization and name recognition helped, and many potentially secular votes were wasted on independent candidates. A major factor in Ennahda’s success was the appeal of its message of forward-looking Islam.

Without a majority, Ennahda had to form a coalition in the assembly. The presidency of the republic and the job of speaker of the assembly went to secular politicians. Ennahda took the prime ministership and the majority of the Cabinet. Ghannouchi decided to take no governmental role at all, instead remaining temporarily as head of the party — a choice reflecting his rejection of the politics of personal charisma.

The constitutional debate began poorly. Ennahda released a draft constitution of its own that would have made Shariah a “basic source” of general law. Secularists quickly protested, and then a new Salafi movement, made up mostly of young radicals new to the cause of religious fundamentalism, counterprotested. By opening the gates to this public dispute, Ennahda had unwittingly placed the most contentious issue first — and the fight threatened to upend the constitutional process.

Realizing they had miscalculated, the Islamic democrats said they would drop Shariah from the draft. Ghannouchi himself maintained, as he had for years, that a Shariah provision was unnecessary for Ennahda’s program, which is not for an Iran- style Islamic state but for a society infused by Islamic values.

Tunisia’s secular parties, both in opposition and in the governing coalition, have struggled with how to address the rise of Ennahda. Their main problem is a lack of organization. Nearly all the secularists are convinced that, if they were united, they could elect a president and perhaps even defeat Ennahda in next year’s elections.

Yet their several parties have tended to break up into even smaller parties. Beji Caid Essebsi, the 85-year-old former prime minister who has been active in Tunisian politics since the 1950s, is the latest person to try to unify the secularists. Good luck: Most of the secular parties are led by national figures who imagine themselves as future presidents.

The biggest hurdle for the constitutional drafters is agreeing on the form of government: Will it be presidential, parliamentary or a hybrid such as France? Because the secularists expect to elect a president, and because Tunisia has a long presidential tradition, they tend to favor strong presidential powers. But this position could lead to disaster for the secularists if Ennahda’s superior organization and reasonable, if imperfect, performance allows it to elect the president and form a majority in the assembly. Indeed, according to conventional political logic, the secularists should prefer a parliamentary system, where they can join Ennahda in coalition and exert some balancing power even if they can’t win a majority.

For its part, Ennahda, surprisingly, favors a parliament, not a strong president. Its leaders know they can’t fix the country’s economic problems overnight. They prefer to govern in coalition, sharing responsibility and spreading blame. On top of this, Ennahda understands that if a secularist does become president, there could be a struggle for power between the president and a parliament under their leadership. Such a struggle would put democracy at risk.

All this must be resolved in the coming months so that a constitution can be completed by the end of the year and new elections held under it. So far, it seems the process is on track, even if the politicians will have to work quietly through Ramadan, which begins this week and ends in mid-August.

Tunisia is a small country. But its revolution inspired the Arab world, and its democratic success could do the same. After Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, addressed the crowd in Tahrir Square on the eve of his inauguration, he introduced a guest speaker: Rashid Ghannouchi. The Tunisian model might have legs.

Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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