Tunisia Elections Possible Model for Troubled Region

November 1, 2014 Updated: November 1, 2014

TUNIS, Tunisia—Tunisia’s orderly parliamentary elections are being hailed as a model of democracy for a region torn by strife and full of dictatorships. Regional rivalries, however, may put pressures on this fledgling democracy to move away from the dialogue and consensus that has made the country’s transition a success so far.

On Sunday, Tunisian voters punished the Islamist Ennahda Party that had run the country for two stormy years after the 2011 revolution and gave the most seats to Nida Tunis, a party of old regime officials, businessmen and leftists who banded together specifically to unseat the Islamists.

Yet with nearly a third of the seats in the 217-member parliament — just 16 less than Nida Tunis — Ennahda remains a significant force in the country. Any effort to exclude them, which would likely be encouraged by regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, could undermine precisely what has made the transition work until now.

Prominent columnist Rami Khouri, a former executive editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, described the Tunisian elections as “the most significant domestic and national political development in the modern history of the Arab world,” lauding how Tunisians came together peacefully to write and pass a new constitution by the end of 2013 and then hold elections in 2014.

Despite social unrest and severe economic challenges, Tunisia’s different factions were able to agree and compromise for the sake of national unity, “in sharp contrast with the hysteria and hallucinatory emotional excesses” in Egypt where the army overthrew the elected Islamist president to great popular acclaim, Khouri wrote Wednesday in the Daily Star.

Tunisia’s Islamists ruled in a coalition with secular parties and when popular unrest mounted in 2013 over security failures and economic problems, Ennahda willingly stepped down in favor of a government of technocrats.

At the same time that Tunisians were voting, in neighboring Libya the death toll from militias battling over Benghazi was mounting while Egypt was sentencing activists to prison for protesting and expanding the powers of military courts to try civilians.

“There are those who have been quick to pronounce the end to democracy in this region of the world,” said Kenneth Wollack, the president of the National Democratic Institute — who was in Tunis to observe the elections. “I would recommend they visit this country.”

Activists in neighboring Algeria, where earlier this year the long-serving president received 80 percent of the vote despite being confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke, pronounced themselves jealous of Tunisians.

Editor Lounes Guemmache of the influential online news site Tout Sur Algerie said Tunisia erased the mistakes of Algeria’s own failed democratic experiment when an Islamist victory at the polls in 1991 resulted in a military coup that plunged the country into a decade of bloody civil war. “A democratic process with Islamist forces is possible,” he wrote.

In Egypt, however, the opposite lesson has been learned and the press has portrayed theelections as yet another regional defeat for Islamist parties — directly equating Ennahda with Egypt’s fallen and banned Muslim Brotherhood.

“Tunisians celebrate bringing down the Brotherhood,” crowed the daily Al-Akhbar, while Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper said, “The failure of Islamist rule knocks out Tunisia’s Brotherhood.”

In their efforts to neutralize political groups with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been getting involved in the internal affairs of their neighbors, most dramatically in Libya where Egyptian and Emirati war planes have reportedly attacked Islamist-linked militias. Despite repeated denials of the airstrikes by Egyptian and Libyan officials, a pair of Egyptian officials — speaking on condition of anonymity —and a Libyan parliamentarian have all confirmed the airstrikes to The Associated Press. Meanwhile Gulf rival Qatar has both publicly and quietly backed Islamist movements around the region.

“Gulf power politics are not only affecting Libya in a big way but they are felt in Tunisia as well,” said William Lawrence, a North Africa expert at George Washington University. “One side ofTunisia’s political spectrum feels encouraged by what is going on in the Middle East but it is by no means good for Tunisian politics if it gets swept up in this Gulf competition for power.”

Now the big question is whether Nida Tunis will opt for a broad-based, stable coalition with Ennahda — essentially a government of national unity — or exclude them. Western countries are reportedly pushing for as broad a coalition as possible, but some Arab allies are pushing for the opposite.

“Gulf states will be much more willing to help a government headed by Nida Tunisia, than one by Ennahda,” said Issandr El Amrani, North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. “There is an incentive to help make a Nida Tunis coalition a success, especially if Ennahda is not included.”

Excluding Ennahda, however, could raise fears among the group that the government, now populated by many figures from the previous regime, might try to take the country back to the bad old days when thousands of Ennahda members were imprisoned and tortured.

Terrorism fears from neighboring Libya have already resulted in new powers for the Tunisian security services and there has been a heavy crackdown on mosques and religious organizations accused of supporting extremists since the summer.

Ennahda’s more hard-line elements could lose faith in the democratic process and the assurances of their leadership and once more end up in a confrontation with the state. Despite its successes,Tunisia remains politically and economically very fragile.

“It’s a model as long as the politics remain peaceful and all these tensions that exist there are managed in a way that’s stable and doesn’t cause a lot of stress in society,” said El Amrani.

From The Associated Press