Tunisia could end up being very important in the potential resolution of the conflicts threatening the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East and North Africa.
As I’ve noted here before, unlike the case in Egypt, a broad “second” protestmovement (differentiated from the 2011 protests that resulted in the transitions to democracy) is based in Tunisia on a response to actual examples of terroristic activities. Two opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, have been killed in Tunisia, which is something significant about which to protest. In Egypt, the protests seem simply to turn on not liking Morsi’s leadership and being distrustful of parties with Islamist roots. Morsi opponents claim his movement is made up of “terrorists”, but there appears to be no real basis for the charge.
But another notable difference is that voters handed the Islamist Ennadha party a minority government victory in the last elections in Tunisia, which means that other parties in the government coalition have some power to effect change. Recently it has come to light that a party in the government’s coalition, Ettakatol, might desert the coalition because of its concerns that Ennadha is not pursuing the killers of the two opposition leaders as strongly as they might desire. Ettakatol is trying to get the government to admit new coalition members and establish a “government of national unity” – the idea here being that if Ennadha is to lead the government, it must demonstrate that it is inclusive of Tunisians and not merely the politically acceptable face of a movement which kills its elected parliamentarians.
If Ettakatol’s gambit is successful, it will demonstrate that “Islamic democracy” parties really do exist, and are not a figment of the imagination.
If Ennadha reacts to losing the confidence of Tunisia’s parliament by deciding to go public with an enthusiastic public thumbs-up to Salafist death squads and denouncing the democratic structures they once defended, we’ll know the critics were right. However, I think it’s just as likely we might find out that Ennadha really does want to Tunisian democracy to succeed.
Let me just put it this way – if Ennadha does make the right decisions, it could totally change the way Middle Easterners and North Africans see what is going on in Egypt. People might concede that it is possible to negotiate constitutionally with the Muslim Brotherhood-led Freedom and Justice Party of Mohamed Morsi, instead of casting its leadership out as nothing more than shills for jihadis and continuing this ill-advised coup d’état. It might also encourage residents of Turkey to take their criticisms of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into an election rather than nurse their fantasies that change only occurs in the streets.
If Ennadha makes the _wrong_ decisions, however, the Middle East and North Africa will be guaranteed not to be a fun place to be for the foreseeable future. The idea of “Islamic democracy” will be so undercut by that failure that it will be a given that part of the world will be divided into armed camps for decades to come.
Most indications thus far are that, if the spirit of the Arab Spring is likely to survive anywhere, it will be in Tunisia, the country that made it happen in the first place. Tunisians have been, for the most part, working together since 2011. Indeed, that’s probably why the killer of Belaid and Brahmi struck – because Tunisian democracy has been working a little too well, from the perspective of those who would like to see it perish.
The Tunisian government must take the rise of right-wing religious extremism seriously. It must prove it is not “blind in the right eye”, as the old German saying goes. If it can do that, so much else is possible in the Middle East and North Africa. If it cannot, not much can save the place.