Tunisia’s Lessons for the Middle East

Why the First Arab Spring Transition Worked Best

Rachid al-Ghannouchi speaks during a news conference in Tunis, August 15, 2013.
Rachid al-Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks during a news conference in Tunis, August 15, 2013. (Zoubeir Souissi / Courtesy Reuters)

The sudden collapse in 2011 of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia, one of the most robust security states in the Arab world, inspired protests from Egypt to Yemen. Some of these movements managed to topple entrenched autocratic rulers; others did not. Although Tunisia has its problems, it is safe to say that the country is faring better today than most of its fellow Arab Spring nations. As interviews with senior government officials, heads of political parties, representatives of civil society organizations, academics and opinion leaders, and former political prisoners make clear, the Tunisian approach has distinguished itself in two areas: the sound management of its transition process and its rational, systematic approach. As countries throughout the region struggle to establish new social contracts, they should keep in mind Tunisia’s lessons.

The way Tunisia handled its most recent political crisis is characteristic: On July 25, a Salafi extremist assassinated Mohamed al-Brahmi, a member of the National Constituent Assembly (the interim parliament). In response, over 50 members withdrew from the assembly, demanding the dissolution of the government and the formation of a new, technocratic government to lead the country the rest of the way through the transition. Rather than take up arms, the opposition parties protested peacefully. Meanwhile, the government held intensive talks with all parties to try to end the standoff. To date, it has offered substantial concessions -- including forming a national unity government and suspending sessions of the Constituent Assembly, which had been an opposition demand. Unlike in Egypt, there was no foreign mediation. Although a final agreement on a technocratic government has yet to be reached, all parties continue to talk and explore solutions.

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