The Flower Of The Arab Spring

Big election news out of Tunisia, where the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has conceded Sunday’s vote to their secular rivals Nidaa Tounes:

Official results have yet to be announced, but Nidaa Tounes said it has won at least 83 seats in the 217-member assembly over about 65 seats secured by Ennahda. Senior Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun congratulated Nidaa Tounes, but called for the inclusion of Ennahda in the new coalition, for the formation of a unity government. Nidaa Tounes was established to counter Ennahda, and is led by Beji Caid Essebsi, a former parliament speaker under ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the party includes other former Ben Ali officials, as well as union leaders and independent and secular politicians.

Pre-election Dish coverage here. As we noted, the vote was the first full parliamentary election since the 2011 revolution, and the first held under a new constitution adopted in January. Lindsay Benstead and colleagues breathe a sigh of relief at how smoothly it went:

Sunday’s elections were enormously significant precisely because they were seemingly uneventful.

The turnout was unexpectedly high, reaching over 60 percent of registered voters. Voting was peaceful, and as strong turnout figures came in, Tunisians were exuberant. Perhaps most important, the elections saw peaceful turnover of power. Nidaa Tunis, a party that emerged after uprisings against the Ennahda-led government, emerged the winner, and Ennahda conceded defeat. Now, negotiations over the Cabinet will begin, with all the usual haggling. In stark contrast to experiences in Egypt or Libya, Tunisia’s elections are “politics as normal.”

This is not to say that Tunisians are satisfied. A Transitional Governance Project (TGP) poll conducted in June in conjunction with the Center for Maghreb Studies (CEMAT), with funding from the United Nations Democracy Fund, found that 48 percent of Tunisians believed that they were worse off than they were before 2011. Moreover, Tunisians are disillusioned with parties, elections and politicians.

They sound like Americans. So now what’s the main challenge for Sunday’s victors? John Thorne points to the country’s economic woes:

Tunisia’s economy is ensnarled in red tape that chokes investment and job creation while maintaining a Ben Ali-era economic system that empowers a small elite and concentrates wealth in coastal cities, says a Sept. 17 World Bank report. Wealth gaps, unemployment, and sheer oppression helped trigger 2011’s revolution. Tunisia’s international partners “need to help Tunisia tackle the structural problems that have created economic underperformance and social tensions,” says Antonio Nucifora, the World Bank’s former lead economist on Tunisia. “Tunisians are calling for fundamental changes.”

In particular, they’re calling for jobs. Unemployment and economic problems top public concerns, says a poll by the National Democratic Institute released Aug. 19, while 65 percent of Tunisians say political parties are mainly interested in power.

They sound like Americans. Dalibor Rohac cheers the results as proof that the Arab Spring hasn’t been a complete failure, but worries about the winners’ agenda:

For those who feared that democratization in the MENA region could bring about theocracy and extremism, the status-quo nature of Nidaa Tounes is probably good news. At the same time, however, it seems unlikely that the party, whose sympathizers largely overlap with those of the country’s influential labor unions, will bring about the deep institutional and economic changes that Tunisia needs in order to extend access to economic opportunity to ordinary Tunisians by dismantling Byzantine red tape and corruption and freeing up its economy.

For example, while it is certainly praiseworthy that the party has promised to improve the economic situation of women, one should worry that it plans to do so by what are likely to be popular yet ineffective measures: creating a new government bureau fighting discrimination, investing in social housing for young female workers, and extending statutory maternity leave. More importantly, in many areas the exact economic platform of Nidaa Tounes remains blurry.

Max Boot shares those concerns:

[I]t will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise.

But Hussein Ibish gives the winning party more credit:

[I]n the last election Ennahda campaigned on social and economic issues, presenting themselves as the authentic representatives of “the revolution.” Most of its secular and non-Islamist rivals focused on trying to spread fear of Ennahda. It was never going to work.

This time around Nidaa Tounes concentrated on the bellwether issues of economic decline, unemployment and the threat of violent extremism. Of course there was an implicit, and sometimes even explicit, critique of the performance of the Ennahda-led troika government on all these matters. But there was no effort to demonize Ennahda or urge people to vote for Nidaa Tounes out of fear of Ennahda. This time the secularists were clear about what they were for, not just who they were against.

Simon Martelli wonders if Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda will form in coalition:

With neither of the two main parties commanding a majority in the 217-member parliament, they may have to work together to form a strong unity government. Many will balk at the prospect of the Islamists taking part in a new coalition. Their opponents accused them of lacking competence, failing to fix the economy and being a soft touch on extremists, who ran amok during the Islamists’ two years in office. But for all its shortcomings, the Islamist party is widely regarded as moderate, and did make concessions in order to keep Tunisia’s political transition on track – in striking contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, its Egyptian counterpart, which paid a heavy price for clinging to power as the situation in Egypt deteriorated.

Noah Feldman hopes they will, arguing that an inclusive coalition would guard against extremism:

In the medium to long term, Tunisia faces a real danger from the surprisingly large numbers of young Salafis who reportedly have gone to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and who may ultimately return home and threaten the safety of the government. The existence of this threat could be used by Essebsi as an excuse to exclude Ennahda, which was initially soft on Salafism before eventually cracking down. But if Essebsi is wise, he will see the Salafi threat as a reason to keep Ennahda within a national unity government. Islamists are much better positioned ideologically to crack down on radical Islam than secularists like Essebsi.

What Tunisia needs is a consensus against terrorism and radicalism — and in favor of democratic institutions. With both, the small country may be able to continue as a beacon of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world.

Totten is confident on that score:

Much hay is being made of the fact that a large percentage of Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq hail from Tunisia. We can speculate about the reasons for that, but I can tell you with absolute confidence that it’s not because Tunisia has a broader base of support for totalitarian political Islam than other Muslim countries. … There is no chance of establishing an ISIS-like “caliphate” on that soil unless an army invades and conquers it from the outside. The ideology can appear there, but it cannot grow there.