OPN 190807 TUNISIA-ELECTION-1565176882004
President of Tunisia's independent electoral committee Nabil Baffoun (centre) attends a news conference in Tunis on July 30, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Has Tunisia’s democracy reached a stage where it can be taken for granted?

The only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring recently passed not one but two tests with flying colours. One got a great deal of attention: The reassuringly drama-free transition of power after the death of its president, nonagenarian Beji Caid Al Sebsi. The other, a pair of suicide bombings in the capital on June 27, went unnoticed by much of the world. Unlike previous instances of terrorism in Tunis, there were no anxieties about the country’s stability as the authorities responded with studied calm.

But a third test may be looming, as the country prepares for a presidential election next month, followed by parliamentary polls the following month: Can Tunisians accept being ruled by Islamists? Other Arab states have tried, and mostly failed. In next-door Algeria, a 1991 vote won by Islamists was overturned by an alliance between secular politicians and the military.

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Since Tunisians toppled their dictator in 2011, they have avoided handing absolute authority to either the secularists or Islamists, forcing them to collaborate in a delicate balance of power. In the 2014 election, no party won a clear majority. Al Sebsi and Rashid Gannouchi, leader of the Islamist Al Nahda party, arrived at a modus vivendi. After the secular coalition fractured last year, Prime Minister Yousuf Chahed was able to keep governing with Al Nahda’s support.

Chahed is now running for presidency. In the next few days, Gannouchi will decide whether to challenge him and turn the September 15 vote into a contest between the country’s most prominent secularist and its most powerful Islamist. Unless the two men can arrive at a power-sharing deal, the battle lines will be repeated for the October 6 parliamentary election.

Levers of power

With the secular forces divided between Chahed and Al Sebsi’s son Hafed, the Islamists could wind up controlling both levers of power. (The Tunisian constitution gives the prime minister much of the governing responsibility, but also vests the presidency with substantial powers, especially over security and foreign policy.)

What then? Whether Gannouchi runs for parliament (which would make him the favourite, to become prime minister) or president, he will wield direct political power for the first time. He has never run for political office. Many Tunisian secularists — and especially the young protesters who started the Arab Spring — remain deeply suspicious of his religious views, even though they are much more moderate than the kind espoused by, say, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Al Nahda now prefers the term ‘Muslim Democrat’ to ‘Islamist’, but as I discovered during a reporting trip to Tunis in February, many Tunisians believe that this is merely a mask.

Of course, the election could make the question of Islamist power academic by reprising the 2014 outcome, with no party getting a majority in parliament. But if the recent past is any guide, this would make for messy politics, the harder for the government — Islamist or secular — to undertake difficult, but necessary, economic reforms.

Which brings us to Tunisia’s ultimate test: In the absence of an economic turnaround, how long can its democracy be taken for granted? Whatever else it is, that question is not academic.

— Bloomberg

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist who writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East.