Tunisia votes, Islamists win

On Sunday, Tunisia held the first free elections of the Arab Spring and the first real elections in its history, with Rachod Ghannouchi’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party winning the largest share with 41% of the vote.  Some will hear “Islamist” discount the possibility of “moderate” and conclude that Tunisia has taken a turn down a dark path, but even staunch secularists have reason to be pleased with the results.

To begin with, a truth needs to be acknowledged: for better or worse (and it was mostly worse) the standard bearer of secularism in Tunisian politics was the outgoing military dictatorship and while there’s no ideological reason why secularism should be aligned with military rule or dictatorship — or, for an earlier generation of Arab politics, Communism — the association naturally disadvantages other secular parties in the immediate post-revolution election.  If independent Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourguiba had truly wanted to build a lasting secular state the best thing he could have done was step down and allow secular political institutions to develop; instead, he made himself President for Life, until he was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1987 by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who then went on to rule himself for nearly a quarter-century until the revolts earlier this year.

But hardline Islamists, too, struggle with a guilt-by-association precedent.  Three decades ago, when popular protests in Iran brought down the Shah, clerical rule was an idea that had never been tested in a modern state so could be imagined in idealized form.  Well, thirty years of actual clerical rule in Iran subsequently put paid to that notion — in particular, to the belief that men of faith will be more honest, less corrupt, and better able to create just and fair societies — as did the endless, blood-soaked battles by renegade Islamist groups to overthrow the military regimes across the region.

The path between the Scylla of dictatorial secularism and the Charybdis of festering clerical rule is best represented by a third precedent: the AK Parti of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that now rules Turkey, which — notwithstanding the grumbling of some White Turks in Istanbul — is both moderately Islamist and democratic, akin to the Christian Democratic tradition in Europe or, you could argue, to the Republican party in the US.  [Indeed, as I wrote about following the mass resignation of the Turkish military leadership, Turkey today is a more mature democracy than it has been at any point since Ataturk founded the modern state in 1923.]  As it happens, the Ennahda party that triumphed in the Tunisian elections now self-consciously models itself on the AKP and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has made reassuring pledges about women’s rights and other issues.

Will they abide by these promises?  As after any election, voters will be able to judge from the policies they put into place once they’re in government.  One constraining factor on Ennahda’s ambitions is that its 90 seats in the 217-seat Parliament leave it short of a majority and the coalition partners it is currently negotiating with are left-leaning secular parties.  But short of jettisoning future elections entirely — which is unlikely, as I wrote earlier in the context of a debate about how democracy has become halal even for Islamists — the next government will be the most accountable to its citizens of any in Tunisian history.  That is what the Arab Spring was all about.

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Click here to read my article about Tunisia for the New York Times travel magazine T.  Or here to see my photographs of Tunisia.

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