Is Tunisia, the Arab world’s historically most moderate country in social and intellectual terms, headed for Islamism or some kind of difficult but democratic future? I want to rethink my conclusions on this point. Or is it just the timeline that needs to be extended?
It should be stressed that Tunisia has more prospects for achieving democracy and avoiding radical Islamism than do Egypt or Libya. In Egypt, 60 percent of the vote was obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in the first round, with claims of up to 75 percent in the second round. Excluding Christian voters, that means somewhere between two-thirds and 80 percent of Egyptian Muslims support radical Islamist parties. Only the army, which is eager to suppress moderates but would rather make deals than fight the Islamists, stands in the way of radicalization. In Libya, the political situation is far less clear but radicals have the guns while tribal and regional conflicts are likely to promote conflict and extremism.
In Tunisia, though, there is a strong base for moderation. Incidentally, Tunisia is the only country where there is a European-style left, in keeping with Tunisia’s Mediterranean orientation and relative openness to Western influences. Tunisia’s new interim president Moncef Marzouki, promising a moderate republic. But the real defense against an Islamist dictatorship, even an elected one, is that the majority doesn’t want it and those people are unlikely to change their minds.
It is easy to identify what went wrong in the Tunisian electoral process: the ridiculous divisions among the anti-Islamist forces. Of 217 seats, the Islamist party, al-Nahda, won 89. What about the other 128? The answer is that basically all but a half-dozen seats—that went to pan-Arab nationalist or far leftist parties—went to moderate anti-Islamist forces, social democratic or liberal parties.
In short, there is a strong potential base in Tunisia–unlike almost every other Arabic-speaking country–for a real alternative to an Islamist transformation of the society. Still, the Islamists are ruling and will be able to do a lot to create the kind of society they want. The question is: How much?
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