Three years ago Tuesday, the Arab Spring began when 26-year-old vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in suicidal protest against the political repression and limited economic opportunity offered in dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali’s Tunisia. This literal spark ignited dramatic political change across the Middle East.
Today, Tunisia’s stalled transition remains the last, best prospect for a democratic blossoming from the Arab Spring. Hope lives on because Tunisia has learned from the other derailed democratic experiments in the region, notably in Iraq, Egypt and Libya.
In May 2003, shortly after U.S.-led coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, L. Paul Bremer III — the de facto viceroy of Iraq — issued two fateful and misguided decrees.
“Order 1” disbanded the ruling Baath Party and excluded its members from “positions of authority and responsibility in Iraqi society.” With the stroke of a pen, Iraq’s elites were purged, removing crucial expertise and dooming political reconciliation. “Order 2” disbanded the Iraqi military, making 400,000 trained, armed men suddenly unemployed. Many found “work” in the fledgling insurgency.
Both decisions were colossal errors. They are now textbook examples of how not to manage the political vacuum that exists after a regime change.
Egypt’s attempt at democracy failed for different reasons. Some officials from the government of ousted President Hosni Mubarak were allowed to participate after the revolution, but the elected Muslim Brotherhood government was inflexible and rarely sought common ground with its political opponents. The army was equally stubborn, refusing to bend to civilian rule. The July counterrevolutionary coup was the price paid for those failings.
Libya after Moammar Kadafi offers yet another set of lessons about what not to do during an attempted democratic transition. The new government made every mistake in the book: bribing militiamen, failing to create a national army to secure the country, refusing to form a grand coalition, and allowing the militias to blackmail it into passing the Political Isolation Law, which barred former regime officials from public life (echoing the de-Baathification mistake in Iraq).
Surrounded by such colorful failures, Tunisian officials have had many examples of what not to do.
Still, there have been dark days in Tunisia’s transition. On Dec. 9, six would-be suicide bombers were arrested before they could execute their attack. Simultaneously, an alleged political assassination was foiled. Earlier this year, two prominent opposition politicians were gunned down, and a suicide bomber blew himself up on a beach full of tourists but killed only himself.
It appears, however, that the Islamist-led interim government in Tunis has taken these troubling events as warning signs and adapted accordingly.
First, learning from mistakes in Iraq and Libya, Tunisian politics are becoming more inclusive, in spite of initial echoes of de-Baathification. Although Ben Ali’s political party was formally disbanded in 2011, the ruling Islamist Nahda movement has shelved a proposed controversial “immunization of the revolution” law, a virtual carbon copy of Libya’s Political Isolation Law.
As a result, though some former government officials face restrictions on foreign travel, many members of the toppled dictatorial regime now lead their own political parties. Some may run in next year’s presidential election. Even some of Ben Ali’s top-level ministers (such as Kamel Morjane, the defense minister and later foreign minister in the former regime) are being allowed to participate freely in public life, an unthinkable prospect in Iraq or Libya.
Second, Tunisia’s transition has avoided the mistakes of disbanding the military (Iraq), letting it act on its own accord (Egypt) or failing to foster an army capable of keeping the country safe (Libya). Instead, Tunisia is strengthening its military and its civilian control, with more robust troop deployments, aggressive border patrols and frequent checkpoints. The government also recently announced the creation of a national counter-terrorism body.
Third, unlike in Egypt and Libya, Tunisia’s ruling elites having been working toward coalition governance. True, the population nudged them in that direction via large-scale protests against a deteriorating security climate and lackluster economy. Nonetheless, many politicians have embraced the agenda of compromise. Over the last months, they have been negotiating a stalled grand compromise with their main political opponents, brokered by the country’s powerful UGTT labor union.
As part of the deal, the Islamist-led “troika” agreed in late September, at least in principle, to step down to allow a technocratic interim government to steer the country toward new elections. Finally, on Saturday, a way to implement this pledge was devised by appointing Mehdi Jomaa, a consensus candidate and the current minister of industry, as the caretaker prime minister.
This national dialogue is a stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s stubbornness in Egypt or the Islamists’ attempts to side with the militias in Libya.
Tunisia may be less likely to follow in the bloody footsteps of its neighbors, yet its transition is far from over. Pledges of consensus and compromise may be derailed by political violence or frustrations created by severe election delays.
So far, however, three years after starting the Arab Spring, Tunisia has learned three valuable lessons from Iraq, Egypt and Libya:
Don’t disband your military or let it act as a state within a state, but do make it powerful enough to provide security. Seek consensus and compromise whenever possible. Include experienced and noncorrupt members of the former regime, or you’ll risk throwing the democratic baby out with the dictatorial Baath water.
Brian Klaas, a Clarendon scholar at Oxford University, researches elections, democratic transitions and political violence. He is conducting field work in Tunis, Tunisia. Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern history at Cambridge University, is the editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future.