With the constitutional authority declaring that Tunisia should hold elections within the next sixty days, the future of the country’s political system remains uncertain.
Less than a month ago, the vast majority of Tunisians and the world expected President Ben Ali to pave the way for hereditary rule, either through his wife, Leila, or his son-in-law Mohamed Sakhr Materi.
But the dramatic events on the streets of Tunis last week have raised hopes that in the near future Tunisia could host the region’s first democratic government. The country possesses favourable social and economic conditions for democratic transition. The near total Sunni population means that Tunisia will not suffer from the religious sectarianism that currently plagues other Middle Eastern countries. Religious extremism is also markedly absent. This cannot simply be attributed to the previous regime’s religious crack down. While the last ten years has seen a greater desire for religious observance and participation in Tunisian daily life, this does not extend to the political sphere. The chances of effective and meaningful mass political participation in Tunisia are boosted by the country’s large middle class, university-educated population and its high literacy rates.
The sizeable Tunisian migrant population that currently lives in Europe serves as a conduit for liberal ideas and has cultivated an appreciation for Western institutions. The country’s proximity to Europe also means that every Tunisian knows the important role that the millions of tourists, which flock to its shore every year, play in sustaining livelihoods. A shared experience of oppression has, until now, resulted in Tunisia’s opposition groups forming an unusual solidarity. For instance, the struggle for political freedom dissipated the hostility that once marred relations between Tunisia’s Leftist forces and Islamist movement.
Notably, Islamists supported the hunger strikes undertaken by Leftist leaders during the UN World Summit in Tunis in 2005. And the leader of the Tunisian communist party, Hamma Hammami, in his open letter declared his party’s acceptance of the Tunisian Islamist movement as partners in the political struggle for democracy. Yet the Islamists have been in exile for two decades and were notably absent from the streets over the last few weeks. Instead, it was the students, secular intellectuals, lawyers and trade unionists that have been at the forefront of this movement. While Islamists would be assured parliamentary representation in free elections, it is unlikely that they would achieve broad based support. Before forced into exile in 1991, the Islamist party, An-Nahda, only gained 15 percent of the vote in municipal elections.
Within Tunisia it is a widely believed that secular politics is here to stay and it unlikely that any movement seeking to reverse this will attract support. However, the Tunisian Islamic opposition movement is regarded as the most liberal and democratic of Islamic parties in the world. As it stands today, with the continuing uncertainty and sporadic violence, it remains to be seen how Tunisia’s political landscape will evolve. Without experience of holding fair and open elections and an absence of strong independent institutions to oversee the transition—it will not be straightforward process. It is also too early to predict whether the Tunisian opposition groups can continue to agree to put aside any political differences that may arise in order to work together. But what is certain is that the ingredients for genuine democratic transformation do exist in Tunisia, and that we are witnessing an unprecedented opportunity.