By Jonathan Fryer
The new Arab Awakening – popularly but misleading often dubbed in the Western media the Arab Spring – is widely seen as having been triggered by the self-immolation of itinerant street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi outside the municipal offices in the otherwise unremarkable town of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010. The spontaneous upsurge of popular protest soon spread to the capital Tunis, and to most observers’ astonishment, within a month President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had stepped down and fled to exile in Saudi Arabia along with his equally detested wife.
However, the speed and relative bloodlessness of the Tunisian revolution were to prove far harder for other Arab states to emulate. Over 800 Egyptians lost their lives in the three-week struggle to oust their octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak, while in Libya the stated determination of the Gaddafi family to wipe out the opposition in Benghazi led to a military intervention by Western powers, a short but bloody war and the ignominious slaughter of Muammar Gaddafi himself. In Syria, most disturbingly, more than three years after the demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime broke out, he is still in power but well over 100,000 of his compatriots are dead and millions have become refugees or have been internally displaced and the civil war continues.
In Egypt elections ushered in the Muslim Brotherhood and the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, who was himself overthrown in a military coup last July, leading to a return to the status quo ante, albeit with a different military strongman in charge. Though Libya held elections that produced a more politically diverse result, the country is still wracked by factional and regional tensions, kidnappings and outbreaks of violence.
So how is it that Tunisia has largely succeeded while the others have failed? In contrast to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Ennahda or Renaissance Party, which quickly emerged as the largest political force, tempered its Islamism, promoting a form of Islamic democracy that in the words of spokesman Samir Dilou would be characterised by the idea of liberty and would allow people to decide how they wished to live. The movement’s figurehead, Rashid al-Ghannushi, who had lived for many years in exile in Britain, stressed moderation when he returned home, including respecting the advances in women’s rights that had been won during the previous regime.
But perhaps the biggest single factor in the smoothness of Tunisia’s transition has been the deliberately slow and steady pace of institutional change to underpin what promises to become the most progressive and democratic country in the MENA region. The constitution that was adopted this February after two years of sometimes heated debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition parties has been hailed by world leaders including President Francois Hollande of France as a beacon for other countries. Now, the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis is working methodically, article by article, through the new electoral law that will govern legislative and presidential elections that are scheduled to take place before the end of the year.
There have been some setbacks, notably the assassination of two opposition leaders last year. But there have been some pleasant surprises as well. On 18 April, for example, the interim President, Moncef Marzouki – formerly a doctor and human rights activist – announced that he was taking a two-thirds cut in salary, in solidarity with Tunisians suffering economic hardship. That is not how Arab Heads of State usually behave, but perhaps more of them should.