Making the revolution work in Tunisia

Some signs of hope today in Tunisia’s political crisis, as it’s reported that the Congress for the Republic – a junior partner in the coalition government, but also the party to which interim president Moncef Marzouki belongs – has deferred for a week its threat to leave the government. According to Al-Jazeera, the party’s leader said “we were contacted yesterday evening by the leaders of [governing Islamist party] Ennahda, who replied favourably to all our demands.”

A quick recap on the story so far: the current crisis began last week with the assassination of leftist opposition leader Shokri Belaid. His followers blame the Islamists, although Ennahada strongly condemned the killing, and several days of mass protests ensued in Tunis and other cities.

Ennahada prime minister Hamadi Jebali has proposed forming a government of national unity consisting of technocrats, but this has been opposed both by the opposition and by his own party.

Tunisia was the first revolution of the Arab Spring, and so far had apparently staged the most successful transition to democracy. Long-time president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was forced into exile, elections were held for a constituent assembly, and Ennahada, which won the largest share of the vote (about 37%), formed a coalition government with two smaller secular parties. Elections for both president and legislature have been set down for June.

But popular discontent is apparently growing, and the government has been unable to ensure law and order. In a climate of economic and religious tension, pro-Islamist militia have been blamed for much of the violence.

The opposition says that it fears a fundamentalist takeover, but if Ennahada is trying to establish a dictatorship it is certainly not going about it very well. Its behavior looks much more like the typical mistakes of a party used to opposition that finds itself unexpectedly in government. It’s poorly equipped either to control its own extremists or to convince its opponents of its good intentions.

Juan Cole at Informed Comment posted a typically balanced and well-informed assessment of the crisis on Saturday. He blames economic issues more than religious ones, which certainly seems plausible, but one sentence for me stood out: “The government is full of people who were harassed by the police and unjustly jailed during the old regime, and restoring power to the police is probably not high on their agenda.”

Revolutions are like that: they always have teething troubles, and whether or not people manage to sort things out for themselves depends on a wide range of factors, including luck.

Tunisia seems to be well placed. By North African standards it is reasonably prosperous; it doesn’t face either external pressures or strong ethnic divisions; its political leaders, although inexperienced in the ways of government, do not seem obviously corrupt, incompetent or fanatical. Countries with much fewer advantages have emerged with stable democracies, so Tunisia probably can as well.

Cole’s conclusion is worth quoting:

As usual, a lot of pundits are looking to use the instability in Tunisia to indict the Arab Spring. But the divisions and the structural problems in the country were largely produced by the old dictatorship, which could no longer deal with them by state coercion. Tunisia is wracked by that new phenomenon, of open political struggle. The country needs to rework it into peaceful civil politics if it is to go ahead, but the struggle itself is salutary.

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