Tunisia’s Lessons for the Middle East: Why the First Arab Spring Transition Worked Best

The sudden collapse in 2011 of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia, one of the most robust security states in the Arab world, inspired protests from Egypt to Yemen. Some of these movements managed to topple entrenched autocratic rulers; others did not. Although Tunisia has its problems, it is safe to say that the country is faring better today than most of its fellow Arab Spring nations. As interviews with senior government officials, heads of political parties, representatives of civil society organizations, academics and opinion leaders, and former political prisoners make clear, the Tunisian approach has distinguished itself in two areas: the sound management of its transition process and its rational, systematic approach. As countries throughout the region struggle to establish new social contracts, they should keep in mind Tunisia’s lessons.

The way Tunisia handled its most recent political crisis is characteristic: On July 25, a Salafi extremist assassinated Mohamed al-Brahmi, a member of the National Constituent Assembly (the interim parliament). In response, over 50 members withdrew from the assembly, demanding the dissolution of the government and the formation of a new, technocratic government to lead the country the rest of the way through the transition. Rather than take up arms, the opposition parties protested peacefully. Meanwhile, the government held intensive talks with all parties to try to end the standoff. To date, it has offered substantial concessions — including forming a national unity government and suspending sessions of the Constituent Assembly, which had been an opposition demand. Unlike in Egypt, there was no foreign mediation. Although a final agreement on a technocratic government has yet to be reached, all parties continue to talk and explore solutions.

That is a testament to the inclusive approach most Tunisians have taken to the transition from day one. Like in Egypt, the mainstream Islamists were poised to take power after the leader was pushed out. Just as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in the first post-Mubarak vote, Tunisia’s Ennahda Party won 41 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly in the first post–Ben Ali vote. Rather than strong-arm the other parties, Ennahda politicians joined in a troika coalition with the Ettakatol Party and the Congress for the Republic, both center-left groups. Ennahda also decided to support the nomination of the secularist Moncef Marzouki for the presidency. Marzouki, a human rights activist and detainee under Ben Ali, headed the Congress for the Republic, which had received only 13.4 percent of the Assembly seats. Despite the three parties’ ideological differences, the coalition has held together for almost two years now; for his part, Marzouki has managed to stay atop the coalition but has not established himself as an especially powerful leader on the national level, particularly amid political crises.


Tunisia’s transitional government has made laudable progress toward a comprehensive, well-reasoned transitional justice law. Of the 12 members of the independent committee charged with drafting the law, only two represent the Ministry of Justice; the other ten come from various civil society groups. Those members gauge popular opinion by meeting with people throughout the country and asking the victims of the Ben Ali dictatorship what they want and expect from the transitional justice process. The committee has also consulted with organizations specializing in transitions and transitional justice and has included them among its ten civil society members. The Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center and the Tunisia Network for Transitional Justice, both represented in the committee, have played key roles.

Tunisia has chosen a middle path for dealing with the former regime elements. It has avoided enacting anything resembling Libya’s sweeping Political Isolation Law, which penalized most anyone who held public office between 1969 and 2011. Tunisia also opted for something more rigorous than did Yemen, where the immunity law that accompanied the country’s Gulf-brokered settlement short-circuited any attempt at transitional justice and prevented prosecutions for past violations. Not one person in Yemen has been held accountable for past crimes, and the former regime has continued to govern without even minimal party reform. Tunisia’s approach, on the other hand, has been termed tahseen al-thawra (fortifying the revolution). Some of the most senior former officials will be banned from public office for five years. But those who have not been tried or convicted will be permitted to participate in politics — allowing, for example, the Habib Bourguiba-era official Beji Caid Essebsi to lead the Nidaa Tounes Party. (Essebsi has also said he plans to run in the next presidential election.) Tunisians have emphasized a targeted process of transitional justice, prosecuting on an individual basis; otherwise, they are resolute that only the ballot box should exclude these figures from public life.

On institutional reform, meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly has adopted the approach of gharbala (sifting) rather than the kind of full-scale tatheer (purge) demanded in Libya. In reforming the judiciary, the priority has been on removing judges linked by hard evidence to corruption or misconduct. The security services, meanwhile, will be subject to oversight from new structures such as the National Authority for the Prevention of Torture, which will be in charge of monitoring and inspecting the country’s prisons. It will also have the authority to enter any jail and interview its prisoners. In addition, although the government faces charges of restricting the media, the Constituent Assembly has at least formed special committees to inspect and reform the state media, complicit for so long in glorifying the former regime, and the historically corrupt administrative apparatus.

All of the efforts to grapple with the legacy of the old regime have been complemented by parallel national dialogues, one put forward by the country’s presidency and one by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). The dialogues aim to forge agreement on key challenges facing the country, including the nature of the state, elections, and basic elements of the constitution. Together, the two tracks include more than 60 political parties and 50 civil society organizations. They have already led to agreements on a number of key points: a firm rejection of violence; the economy as a government priority; a road map for the transition; consensus on major issues like a civil state and a constitutional system; the independence of the judiciary; freedom of the press; and freedom of assembly. Further, the national dialogue formed a committee of 17 political parties and four civil society organizations to implement all agreements.


There are several cultural and religious factors that have worked in Tunisia’s favor throughout the transition. In conversation, Tunisians frequently emphasize that most Tunisians reject radicalism and violence. Some, including Said Ferjani, an Ennahda politician, attribute that to the prevalence of the moderate Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, which has historically rejected extremism (a reported 98 percent of Tunisians adhere to Malikism). Others point to the rule of Tunisian President Bourguiba, from 1957 to 1987, and the cultural legacy of his centralizing and modernizing project. Tunisia also lacks the sharp ethnic, tribal, or sectarian-religious delineations that have proven so divisive elsewhere.

Structural factors, however, do not fully explain Tunisia’s course. One important issue is the outlook of the Ennahda Party, which differs dramatically from that of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood leaders were subjected to decades of systematic repression and radicalization within Egypt; their political agenda was largely shaped in regime prisons. For example, Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, was jailed from 1965 to 1974 under Egyptian Presidents Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat. (And he has now been imprisoned again.) Ennahda leaders, on the other hand, spent the Ben Ali years in exile. From 1991 to 2011, the Ennahda leader Rached al-Ghannouchi resided in London, as did many of the group’s other top figures. The experience had a modernizing influence on Ennahda’s political thought, pushing it embrace and articulate a more inclusive and conciliatory model. It is also worth noting the comparative weight of Egypt’s Salafis, which won 28 percent of the country’s 2011 parliamentary vote and helped to polarize the country’s political debate and drag the Egyptian Brotherhood further to the right.

Tunisia also enjoys, contra Egypt, a professional, noninterventionist army with a commitment to republicanism. Egypt’s army has historically stood apart from the government, wielding political power in its own right. It even has its own set of international allies: the U.S.-Egyptian military-to-military relationship occasionally overshadows bilateral diplomatic relations. Tunisia’s army, on the other hand, was decisive in Ben Ali’s ouster and the subsequent transition in part because of its relative absence from Tunisian politics.

Tunisia has also benefited from having an intact Constituent Assembly for most of its transition, providing a broadly legitimate platform for debate. (The lower house of Egypt’s parliament was dissolved by court order, leaving only the weaker upper house.) Although Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly was also recently suspended, it is expected to return soon; most of the efforts to mediate the country’s political crisis, which seem close to a resolution, have emphasized the resumption of the assembly’s work. In addition, civil society has played a leading role in national dialogue and mediation.


Of course, this is not to say that the Tunisian transition does not face challenges, among them some continued popular protest and the desperate state of the economy. Transitions need substantial budgets; reconciliation is typically based in part on compensation for victims of the old regime — former prisoners, the families of the disappeared, and so on. Tunisia is resource poor, and its tourism industry has been hit hard by the revolution and its aftermath. It is not unusual to visit tourist destinations around the country and find them entirely deserted these days.

Tunisia also faces a difficult challenge to state authority and the rule of law: the Committees for the Protection of the Revolution (CPRs). These committees, which are composed of former revolutionaries, have taken it upon themselves to defend the revolution and agitate for old-regime elements to be held accountable. Although the transition is moving ahead, committee members fear the rise of a revanchist counterrevolution. In at least one instance, a CPR has been accused of killing an opposition politician, Lutfi Naqeq of the Nidaa Tounes Party. CPRs have also been suspected of attacking UGTT in Tunis. Some opposition groups believe that the CPRs are the military wing of the Ennahda Party. In reality, they are not, although they do include some party members. The challenge of revolutionary demobilization is one that faces most revolutions, and Tunisia is no exception. Still, the best way to deal with these committees has become a divisive topic. Ennahda has argued that any political decision to dissolve the committees will undermine the transition and that, instead, committees linked to violence should be dissolved through the Tunisian courts. Others, though, argue that the license for vigilantism is intolerable and that protecting the revolution is the exclusive responsibility of the state.

Tunisia also faces at least one kind of polarization that is more extreme than in other Arab cases: the vast (and growing) divide between Tunisia’s secularist liberals and its ultraconservative Salafi Islamists. Tunisian secularism is vibrant and unparalleled in the Arab world; under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Tunisia was the only Arab country to ban the hijab in state institutions. Its Salafi jihadists, meanwhile, demand a purely religious state and have shown their willingness to attack cultural activities they deem un-Islamic. Tunisia is a sharp contrast with Egypt, for example, where there was basic consensus on the establishment of Islam as the state religion; in Tunisia, the sheer distance between these two cultural extremes makes the chance that they will coalesce around one vision for the state rather slim. Moreover, Salafis, who were imprisoned or underground before the revolution, have been growing in strength. Jailed Salafi leaders — including Abu Ayadh, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia — were released as part of the country’s post-revolution amnesty and have since grown in influence. The Salafi group Ansar al-Sharia’s annual conference in 2012 attracted roughly 5,000 attendees; an estimated 50,000 are expected to attend the 2013 conference in the city of Kairouan. The huge gap between liberals and Salafis has left the moderate Ennahda Party, almost by default, to occupy the Tunisian middle. The upshot is that one can witness Ennahda figures being tarred — often simultaneously — as closet fundamentalists by liberals and as infidels and tyrants by Salafis.

Of course, the government has means for dealing with each of these problems. The ultimate solution for Tunisia’s economic difficulties is progress on its political transition; as normalcy is restored, tourism can be expected to bounce back. In the meantime, however, the international community should financially support the transition, recognizing that they are not just investing in Tunisia but in a model for successful transitions that can be exported to the entire Arab region.

On the controversy over the CPRs, both sides have valid points and concerns. Here, the emphasis should be on bolstering and promoting the rule of law. CPRs should not all be treated as one; the choice should not be to either keep them all or dissolve them by political decree. Rather, any individual CPR that breaks the law or behaves in violation of its registered and declared goals should be immediately disbanded within the framework of the Tunisian judicial system.

Socioeconomic development can also help mitigate pockets of domestic radicalism. There is a reason why the poorest neighborhood of Tunis, Tadamon, witnessed violence when this year’s Ansar al-Sharia conference was canceled. Second, Tunisia can also rely on its legacy of Maliki jurisprudence. The Ez-Zitouna Mosque in Tunis is one of the world’s most important centers of Maliki thought. The mosque’s Maliki scholars have worked hard to counter ultraconservative Wahhabi thought by putting forward an Islam based in knowledge and reason. They thus seem primed to repel a new surge in radicalism and help forge societal consensus.

Because of the challenges ahead, Tunisians seem to have little confidence in their transition. In conversation, they constantly ask how it compares to those in other countries. But the Tunisians really are a model for the Arab world’s transitioning states. After all, they are not just building a new set of state institutions; they are forging a culture of accountability and the rule of law. This is how Tunisia can accommodate the political participation of pre-revolutionary figures such as Essebsi and Kamel Morjane, around whom Tunisia is changing for the better. Although Tunisia benefits from some unique characteristics, other Arab countries should seek to emulate its homegrown national dialogue, its political coalition-building, and its bottom-up approach to reform, best exemplified by the drafting of its transitional justice law. For Tunisia, this approach of steady, inclusive, and rule-based state-building is allowing for broad reconciliation and a real evolution in Tunisian society. As for the rest of the Arab world, Tunisia may well show it the way forward.

By Ibrahim Sharqieh.


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