Skeptics about the prospects of democracy in the Middle East argue that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist winter. But as a new study shows, instead of fretting over Islamists, the international community would do better to help Egypt and Tunisia strengthen their political institutions and reform their economies.
The Arab uprisings of 2011, once a great source of hope for democracy enthusiasts, have given way to sectarian clashes and political instability. The Middle East has not yet shed its authoritarian yoke, and the United States needs a policy that reflects that reality.
A Tunisian woman mourns the late opposition leader Chokri Belaid in Tunis on February 8, 2013. (Louafi Larbi / Courtesy Reuters)
At least Tunisia is not as bad as Egypt -- that is the hardly comforting good news coming out of the country where the Arab Spring began, more than two years ago. The bad news is that Tunisia has come up far short of the lofty expectations set by Tunisians and outsiders in January 2011, when protests finally forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from office. Among the Middle East's post-revolutionary governments, Tunisia still has the best chance of turning into a consolidated democracy, but barriers old and new are making the task far more difficult.
As I discovered during a recent research trip, Tunisians are deeply worried about their country's sluggish economy, worsening security situation, and never-ending political stalemate. The protests that began the revolution centered on the lack of job opportunities, and Tunisians at all levels of society are still demanding economic improvement. Now, however, they are increasingly fearful for their own safety, the assassination of the popular left-leaning and secular politician Chokri Belaid being just the latest cause for concern, and they are growing disillusioned with the country's acute political polarization. Together, the lack of progress on these fronts has left once hopeful observers worrying that if Tunisia, a small, educated, and religiously and ethnically homogenous country, is having so much trouble with its transition, then perhaps every other Arab Spring country is doomed, too.
On the economic front, Moody's and the S&P have both downgraded their assessments of Tunisia's economy in recent weeks; the country's bond rating is now officially at junk status. Tourism, once a main source of income, has not rebounded since the revolution; I was traveling in the off-season, but even so, I was struck by how few European tourists there were in Tunis and Sousse. The age-old economic gap between the coastal regions and the interior continues to grow, a divide that Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, the Islamist group believed to be behind the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis last September, is exploiting through its own social welfare programs...