Thursday, November 03, 2011

Tunisia leads the Arab Spring in democratic reform

Palm Beach Gardens

Tunisia continues to break political norms. No need for alarm.

A liberal Islamic party, Annahda, won the largest number of votes in Tunisia’s recent parliamentary elections. To form a national cabinet, Annahda plans to partner with two left-of-center secular parties: the Congress for the Republic and Takattul.

Of the 217 candidates elected for parliament, 49 are women. It is equally interesting that of the 49 elected women, 42 belong to the Islamic party. Annahda is the Arabic term for “Renaissance”. Is Anahda championing gender empowerment? It says so.

Annahda will lead a temporary government, commissioned to revise the constitution. The new cabinet will be under great pressure to prove its effectiveness.  For in about a year, a second round of elections will put in place a permanent government. Having a critical Arab Spring mindset, Tunisians will have limited patience for dysfunctional rule.

In judging the quality of governance, the economy is a key factor for voters. The Tunisians both benefit from and contribute to the European economy. Europeans love Tunisia as a resort and a business-friendly environment. The revolution has been a great moral victory, but the turmoil of the uprising has been costly for jobs and foreign investment. Tunisians are well aware that their economy can survive only through free enterprise and an open society.

It should be kept in mind that it was Tunisia which launched the experiment to overthrow oppressive regimes with nonviolent resistance. It is also Tunisia which has pioneered in planning and conducting fair and free elections. Given such record, the challenge to integrate moderate Islam with modern politics has a better chance to succeed in Tunisia than anywhere else in North Africa or the whole Arab world. If successful in shaping a culturally suitable democracy, Tunisia would be a model for the region. Egypt and Morocco have plans for elections in November and Libya is expected to elect its new parliament in 2012. North Africa could evolve as a region.

Even if all the above reasons to support Tunisia’s election results were absent, negative reactions to the news from Tunisia are premature. Moreover, ringing alarm bells for electoral victory of political Islam is often counterproductive. Notwithstanding difference of current circumstances with conditions in the past, expression of hostility to Islamic electoral victory has never been useful.

There are striking lessons from the not too distant past. In 1992, when a popular Islamic party in Algeria was punished by the army after winning the first round of elections, a bloody civil war erupted. In 2006, the Islamic Resistance, Hamas, won impressive Palestinian national elections. Fatah, a rival party, teaming with Israel and the US rejected the results of a democratic voting process. Regrettably, local and foreign hostility to Hamas reinforced Palestinian national divisions, isolated Gaza and weakened the peace process. Neither the Algerians, nor Palestinians have recovered yet from the revenge imposed on political groups who adopt Islamic symbols.

The abortive events of the Algerian and Palestinian elections are still fresh in the minds of the people throughout the Arab world. Some Arabs are eager to see Tunisia find a creative adaptation of democracy to Islam. Others wish to see Islam adapted to democracy. And there are still those who would much prefer to see political Islam fail inside the system rather than outside it. Respecting the opinion of voters is the very exercise of democracy. In Tunis, voters - as in Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia - wish to try a liberal version of political Islam.

In an open social climate, political learning is faster than it is underground.