Tunisia. Flickr: giovannizuccaro

By James Fromson, Intern, IISS-US

On the heels of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise 18 February visit to Tunisia, the IISS–US hosted the president of the Ennahda Movement, Rached Ghannouchi, to discuss the recent successes of Tunisia’s democratic transition and lessons for the broader Middle East.

Joining Ghannouchi at the roundtable discussion on 24 February were Anouar Boukhars, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and David Pollock, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ben Fishman, Consulting Senior Fellow at the IISS, moderated the event.

Ghannouchi hailed Tunisia’s constitution as a triumph for all Tunisians. Drafted with the input and consensus of more than 22 parties representing diverse constituencies, the constitution shows that Islamists and secularists can work together. The Ennahda Movement made many concessions and agreed to relinquish control of the government in order to preserve a genuine consensus. Ghannouchi explained that governance through consensus and not through narrow majorities is what defines ‘the Tunisian model’ of democracy, along with a neutral military, an active civil society, and a homogenous society that provides a sense of unity despite political differences. Ultimately, Ghannouchi asserted, Tunisia’s experience demonstrates that there is no longer an Arab exception to democracy; human rights, freedom of expression and democracy are not limited to the West.

Despite Tunisia’s accomplishments, Ghannouchi warned of challenges ahead, especially the threat of terrorism. He underscored that terrorism is completely contrary to the values and beliefs of Islam. Ghannouchi argued that terrorism must be countered through force and the rule of law, as well as developing poor regions of the country and spreading democracy.

Anouar Boukhars outlined the origins of Salafist groups in Tunisia, a narrow but active element of Tunisian society largely comprised of youth in poor areas that have felt few benefits from Tunisia’s revolution and doubt the intentions of Tunisia’s emerging political class. Boukhars described the evolving debate within Ennahda about how best to contend with the Salafists and warned against the current approach of branding all Salafists as terrorists, since it risks radicalising the non-violent Salafists who do not practise violence and terrorism.

David Pollock underscored that the political parity between Islamists and secularists in an almost evenly divided society explains Tunisia’s recent success and makes Tunisia a unique case in the Middle East. Despite Ennahda’s concessions during the National Dialogue and constitution debate, secular groups in Tunisia remain concerned about how ambiguous language in the constitution will be interpreted, particularly regarding social issues and the role of Islam and the state. Although the secular political parties are far from united, Pollock assessed that the ability of liberal-orientated civil society groups to mobilise large street protests helped compel concessions from Ennahda.

Dr Pollock observed that Tunisia now represents the only instance in which an elected Islamist party left power peacefully. He emphasised that how the new technocratic government contends with the country’s ongoing economic challenges will shape the future success of the transition.

Finally, Radwan Masmoudi stressed that greater American assistance is necessary to support the efforts of Tunisian politicians and civil society groups. The United States, he said, must see Tunisia as both a strategic asset and a model of success for the Arab world. If Tunisia continues to succeed, Masmoudi argued, it will demonstrate to Islamists everywhere the benefits of political participation. Tunisia can also show the rest of the region how Islamists and secularists can live together peacefully.

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