This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.
Nearly four years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled for his life when the first of the Arab Spring uprisings forced him from power. Most of his ministers were close on his heels, scurrying to save themselves in exile. Many of those who did not flee went into hiding or jail.
Several months later, Tunisia held its first competitive multi-party elections. In that vote, however, Tunisians did not have complete freedom of choice; all the top-level figures associated with Ben Ali’s toppled regime were banned from running—a short-term measure that was designed to protect the fragile new democracy from slipping back toward dictatorship.
On October 26, Tunisians will finally have a real and unrestricted choice at the polls. Several of the remnants of the Ben Ali system—former officials who were not imprisoned and have now come out of hiding—are on the ballot in the parliamentary election. And three former top-level Ben Ali-era ministers will compete in presidential elections in late-November: Kemal Morjane, Mondher Znaidi, and Abderrahim Zouari. The sitting government gave them permission to run in the spirit of national reconciliation and inclusivity.
That decision might seem surprising. After all, in addition to keeping the state running, new democratic politicians must decide how to cope with the cobwebs of authoritarianism. They are inevitably eager to ensure not only that the dictator is removed, but also that members of the dictator’s regime are purged. But more often than not, purges are a serious mistake. As John Stuart Mill argued a century and a half ago, a free marketplace of ideas is necessary to allow citizens to separate good ideas from bad ones. As counterintuitive as it may seem, then, the inclusion in the upcoming election of Ben Ali-era politicians—men who actively supported a ruthless dictatorship—is one of the most promising steps that Tunisia has taken to preserve its democracy so far.
Tunisia has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion.
If Ben Ali’s former ministers had been banned, they could have become a source of volatility—as symbols of political martyrdom to their followers. Banned candidates may also launch coups and civil wars, taking power with bullets after being excluded from the ballot box. (Côte d’Ivoire is a tragic and clear example.) By contrast, in Tunisia, three former Ben Ali ministers are going to freely stand as candidates—and lose, partly because they will split the vote and partly because most Tunisians do not want someone so closely affiliated with Ben Ali to return to power. And that will be a much more effective (and less destabilizing) way to cope with the old guard.
Purges that go too far are a grave risk to fragile democracies. Tunisians do not need to look far to see why. Just to Tunisia’s east, militants are tearing apart Libya in a series of feuds that were intensified by Libya’s Political Isolation Law, an attempt to rid the country of officials stained by their affiliation with deposed dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The problem, it turns out, is that any Libyan who worked in government in any capacity since 1969 is tainted by an affiliation with Gaddafi. As a result, purging those affiliated with his rule meant getting rid of nearly everyone who knew how to run the country.
Libya made enormous mistakes with its transitional purge, but those mistakes are nothing compared to the United States’ de-Baathification debacle in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The American-led authority in Iraq barred an estimated 100,000 members of Saddam’s party—including teachers, doctors, and professors—from participation in the country’s political life, simply because they were once employed by the authoritarian government. And so a generation of institutional know-how was wiped out with the stroke of L. Paul Bremer’s pen. That policy—combined with the decision to disband Iraq’s military and send men with guns home without a paycheck—goes a long way toward explaining why Iraq spiraled out of control.
With few exceptions, Tunisia has avoided similar mistakes. Instead, the country has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion. For one, none of the major institutional organs of Ben Ali’s state—including the military—was excised or disbanded. Instead, each was reformed and molded to respond to Tunisia’s new and democratically elected government.
That same restraint stopped Tunisia from making the mistake of blindly purging politicians and bureaucrats with considerable expertise. In 2011, a commission led by the respected jurist Yadh Ben Achour ruled that ministerial-level politicians under Ben Ali’s regime should be disqualified from the country’s first democratic elections, but not from future participation in public life or politics. This decision coincided with the disbanding of Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, but did not prohibit former members of the party from contesting future elections.
The commission went too far in only one respect, namely, its ruling to disqualify the so-called Mounachidines, a list of people who had publicly signed a letter prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring that called for Ben Ali to run for reelection. Some of the people on the list were genuine supporters of the dictatorship; others simply signed their names because they feared the consequences of being absent from it. If, for example, a university president did not demonstrate his or her support for the regime publicly, he or she could reasonably expect to be replaced (or worse). The difference between genuine support and support out of fear is a critical one, and successful transitions must recognize it. In 2011, this overzealousness had limited effects because the Revolution had just occurred and public opinion overwhelming backed the decision; repeating the mistake this year, however, could have been disastrous.
In short, there have been bumps along the way—and there are several serious potential political roadblocks that lurk ahead—but, so far, Tunisia is paving a much smoother road to democracy than its collapsing Arab Spring counterparts. And it deserves all the more credit for its response, given that this was the first time the country had ever thrown off the shackles of a longstanding and brutal dictatorship in order to build a fledgling democracy.
This month’s elections are thus both a celebration of Tunisia’s success and a crucial test. Throughout 2013, hardline Islamists (including conservative members of Tunisia’s big-tent Islamist party, Ennahda, and their further-right counterparts, the Wafa Movement) proposed to renew the directive that disqualified the Mounachidine and banned from standing for election anyone who had served in Ben Ali’s government. When it came to a vote in May, though, the legislation was rejected—even with the Mounachidine provision stripped from the final proposal.
Polls suggest that the Islamist coalition, Ennahda, is most likely to win the parliamentary vote, but that the presidency will most likely be captured by the secular 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister of foreign affairs for Ben Ali’s predecessor who also served as the interim prime minister of Tunisia after Ben Ali fled the country in early 2011. Essebsi does have some ties to Ben Ali (he served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies for a year in the early 1990s), but he is not considered a close ally of the deposed strongman. His age may prove to be an issue, but he is a competent leader who is neither a staunch defender of Ben Ali nor a zealous secularist unwilling to compromise with the country’s moderate Islamists. It would have been a shame, in other words, to disqualify him.
Tunisia still faces tremendous challenges, including spillover violence from Libya, terrorism from Ansar al-Sharia, and the threat of destabilizing post-election disputes. And, for the first time since 2011, more than half of all Tunisians said in a recent poll that they would prefer a stable, prosperous, authoritarian government over an unstable, insecure democracy, reflecting concerns regarding the country’s ongoing economic woes. But Tunisia is nonetheless the last Arab Spring democracy still standing. Other transitioning regimes in the Middle East and the world should take note: Democracy is not about exclusion, but about giving people a genuine choice—even, or especially, when it’s an uncomfortable one.
This appeared originally in Foreign Policy on September 19, 2014.
This fall, Tunisia will vote in national parliamentary and presidential elections -- marking the second and third vote since former dictator Ben Ali was driven from power during the first Arab Spring uprising. When voters cast their ballots, they will have to choose between two competing visions for the future of their divided society. One vision is devoutly religious, conservative, and more rural, turning its gaze east toward Tunisia's co-religionists in the Middle East. The other sees a secular, liberal, and urban Tunisia, yearning to emulate Europe rather than far away desert kingdoms.
Luckily, the two big-tent parties that dominate Tunisian politics seem to be putting the country before ideological divides, hoping to build a Tunisia that has as much room for the sacrosanctity of the Quran as it does for democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. On the right is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist coalition that was created in 1989 and was outlawed and persecuted heavily under Ben Ali's reign. On the left is Nidaa Tounes, or "Call for Tunisia," a hodgepodge of secular leftists, progressive liberals, and moderate pragmatists that were previously affiliated with Ben Ali's former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party.
Rather than doing what politicians do best -- exploiting national divides for personal and political gain -- both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus.
Rather than doing what politicians do best -- exploiting national divides for personal and political gain -- both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus.Last week, for example, Ennahda announced that it would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming November election, because its leaders do not want to expand its considerable power over the state. Such profound symbols of pragmatic reconciliation are a bold attempt to build a bridge between the two Tunisias.
That being said, these admirable efforts haven't gone over well with everyone. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have made clear that they intend to destroy anything but a firmly conservative country, turning to violence rather than reconciliation and putting ideology before national prosperity. Tunisians that flocked to Islamic State (IS) bases in Iraq and Syria may attempt to returnfor the vote, an explosive risk to Tunisia's fragile democracy. Spillover violence from Libya's low-level civil war is also a grave risk.
But even if terrorists don't derail the elections, internal political rivalries could. After a generation of brutal dictatorship, the country is divided over whether former members of Ben Ali's regime should be allowed to stand as candidates in the upcoming vote. That debate is a political minefield, especially for Ennahda. Many of its current members were dedicated to the Islamist cause from the early days, only to end up rotting and tortured in jails during Ben Ali's dictatorship. In 1991 alone, Ben Ali jailed as many as 25,000 Ennahdha members. Put simply, they want revenge. Other members were able to flee before the crackdown, escaping to exile in Europe. When Ben Ali was deposed, they returned.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists with both experiences found themselves in the same party once more. Unsurprisingly, the formerly jailed members resented those who had been strolling the streets of Paris and London. The former exiles also tend to be more moderate, talking the talk of a sort of "Islamism-lite" that European diplomats could support. In other words, even within the Islamist party, the divide of two Tunisias is apparent.
Ultimately, the internal battle played out as conservative members of Ennahda (partnering with hardliners from the Wafa Movement) backed a full purge of anyone who had previously been a member of Ben Ali's regime. Moderates backed inclusion in the spirit of putting the past behind Tunisia. The moderates won the debate; in June, the Tunisian Assembly rejected the conservative push to put exclusion and vengeance over inclusion and reconciliation.
As a result, the upcoming elections will be inclusive, and to put the icing on this consensus-building cake, moderate members of Ennahda are now suggesting a grand bargain with Nidaa Tounes -- a party led by a man that would have been excluded under the political exclusion law. Even Kemal Morjane, a former defense minister and minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali, announced last Saturday that he would be a candidate in the elections.
Another stumbling block is the furious debate over the role of women in politics, which has driven a wedge between moderates and conservatives particularly within Ennahdha, with the conservatives far more hesitant to support female politicians. Again, the moderates won that debate. In the 2011 elections, 50 percent of candidates were women. Even though women won only 31 percent of the seats in 2011, that is still an impressive proportion -- after all, women comprise only 18.5 percent of the United States Congress. Perhaps more surprisingly, of the 67 seats won by women in 2011, 42 came from the Islamist Ennahdha party. Ennahdha only accounted for 39 percent of the overall vote share in the 2011 election, but delivered 63 percent of the elected female politicians.
This was due in part to the triumph of the party's moderates, who have managed to be both inclusive toward the old guard and toward women. This is good for Tunisia's long-term politics, but poses a short-term threat to peace and stability. Extremists sidelined from Ennahda's decision-making are now going underground, trying to derail the democratic process with violence. Last year, two high-profile assassinations of prominent secular politicians and two failed suicide bombings caused the shutdown of parliament and a near collapse of the government. There have been frequent ongoing attacks targeting soldiers, launched from the Chaambi Mountains, near the Algerian border. (The photo above shows the Tunisian military band performing at a funeral for soliders killed near Mount Chaambi.) Less than three weeks ago, terrorists attacked a secular liberal member of parliament at his house. He fled, leaping from his roof, and barely escaped with his life.
If the birthplace of the Arab Spring is to bridge its internal divides and create one stable, peaceful Tunisia, the October and November elections must go smoothly.
Elections are not a panacea, but clean and peaceful elections will offer a rebuke to Islamist extremists. They must not be marred by violence and terrorist attacks.
The West can and should help. In late August, the United States announced that it would send $60 million in new military aid to Tunisia to help it fight its terror threat. In mid-August, Tunisia's government announced that it would be calling up reservists, attempting to field a ragtag group of 30,000 soldiers -- many of them reservists -- so that those on active duty can continue hunting terror cells. These are excellent first steps.
But the United States and other international partners can still do more to help shore up security before, during, and after Tunisia's elections. The fragile Tunisian government could use more military advisers and logistical support. Drone surveillance should be used to help stem the threat of cross-border terrorism from Libya.
In addition to these military sticks, donors should offer carrots in the form of increased financial aid. They should hinge future aid on the condition that the country's leaders form an inclusive elected government and that all parties abide by election results. Italy should help by converting some of Tunisia's debt into a special fund used for internal development projects -- a step that the Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, requested last week.
If these elections proceed peacefully, Tunisia could serve as a beacon of hope for the Middle East, exemplifying a successful transition from ruthless dictatorship to hybrid Islamist democracy -- all while maintaining multi-party elections, human rights, and a thoughtful, consensus-driven political dialogue.
If they do not, and Tunisia's extremists are able to hijack the elections by creating chaos, then Tunisia's budding democracy will collapse under the weight of two competing visions. Yet another Arab Spring country will wither, wilt, and collapse, following in the bloody footsteps of Libya and Syria.