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Tunisia’s Tempestuous Triumph: Reconciling Islam, Democracy and Sustainable Development?

Guarded optimism amidst fear of flames in Tunisia: a view from the presidency. Photograph by Khaled Kteily

This article is based on a learning journey organized by the Tunisian delegates of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers Initiatives from September 27 to October 1, 2017. The visit included in-depth meetings with key government officials including, the President of the Republic; The Prime Minister; The Head of the Parliament (Speaker); The President of the erstwhile Constitutent Assembly and key business leaders and civil society activists across the country.

As you enter Tunisia’s parliamentary chamber, there are two large plaques on either side of the front door with gilded Arabic script. On the left side is the preamble of what may be termed the “old constitution,” and on the right side is the preamble of the country’s current constitution, which is perhaps the most lucid testament to the power of civil society in the Arab world. Tunisia’s current constitution, adopted in 2014, was the result of a three-year process of the most arduous deliberations following the end of authoritarian rule, and a roller coaster ride of largely peaceful altercations between Islamist and secular political forces in the country.  Its wording was painfully negotiated between the Islamist Ennahda Party, which had won the popular vote in the election, and more secular forces. Key to the success of this transition was the realization by all sides that political legitimacy extended beyond merely electoral legitimacy.

Fragrant jasmine flowers are ubiquitous among street vendors of Tunis and grace most ceremonial events in Tunisia, reminding us of their namesake 2011 revolution, which is considered the progenitor of the “Arab Spring.” The self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable vendor due to police harassment is considered the proverbial spark that lit the flame of the revolution across numerous Arab countries from 2011 onwards. The past six years have seen the metaphoric spring turn to a very dark winter in Syria and Yemen and the autumnal rise and fall of “Islamic democracy” in Egypt. Tunisia is the only country which has “survived” this stormy spring with a nascent democratic system in place.  Yet the country’s predicament remains paradoxical and polarized on many accounts. Soon after the revolution, an estimated 6000 Tunisian youth went to Syria to fight for radical Islamist movements – the highest number per capita of any country. At the same time, the vast majority of the country, as much as 86% according to 2016 polling (a rise from 72 % in 2011), feel that democracy is the best form of government, even with economic woes having risen since the revolution.

Tunisian Exceptionalism?

Tunisians take great pride in their Phoenician heritage and invoke the pioneering spirit of the legendary Queen Dido who is believed to have founded the city of Carthage. Subsequent great military leaders such as Hannibal are also venerated, alongside a history of religious pluralism which gained particular fame when Jews and Muslims from Iberian Spain fled to North Africa. Even now the island of Djerba is a sterling example of Jewish-Muslim coexistence. Tunisia’s political culture has also been able to keep the army’s meddling in day-to-day politics at bay even during the despotic period of its postcolonial history. The Tunisian military supported the Jasmine revolution and analysts credit this exceptional role of the armed forces in keeping the country on a democratic path.

Given this history of pluralism, Tunisian society is willing to embrace civic dissent internally more so than parts of the Arab world. A culture of civic entrepreneurship, coupled with a strong tradition of organizing around fundamental rights has manifest itself in strong unions of workers and managers alike; alongside professional organizations of socially conscious lawyers and human rights activists. It was these organizations that were able to rescue the country from its darkest days in the post-revolutionary period when two politicians got assassinated and fears of a civil war were on the horizon. For their work, the “National Dialogue Quartet” was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. No other organization of its kind has existed in the Arab world thus far. Tunisia clearly has certain specific historical attributes which make it “an Arab anomaly,” as noted by Safwan Masri in his eponymous book published after the Arab spring. However, despite these exceptional elements, pan-Islamism has touched Tunisia as well. Neiboring Libya’s unraveling has led to an estimated 2,000,000 immigrants coming into the country of only 11 million citizens. Though these migrants who have come loaded with cash have created a consumer-driven positive impact on the economy, there is also concern that some have more radical Islamist leanings. Therefore, Tunisian exceptionalism in a pan-Islamist Arab world will certainly continue to be tested.

Islam, the West and Alliance Formation

Reconciling theological ascendancy of Islam while maintaining a separation of mosque and statecraft was a fine act of linguistic persuasion in the Tunisian constitution. Islamist parties won a majority after the election and thus it was clear that the constitution would need to recognize the role of Islam in the country’s central legal document. Thus the first clause of the constitution recognizes that Islam is the national religion. However, the reformists were very clear to note in the constitution that the country was a “civic” state in which laws were to come from a process of civic engagement rather than theology. They chose the word “civic” rather than secular to ensure that Islamists would not make any negative comparisons with countries like Turkey, where secularism was imposed after Ataturk’s revolution.

This delicate separation of mosque and state was made possible also because of leadership shown by some of the most influential Islamic leaders in the country. Tunisia’s leading Islamic political scholar Rached Ghannouchi supported the Tunisian Personal Status Code (i.e. code of women rights) and at one time when he was asked if a Christian or a woman has the right to be the leader of a Muslim country he said “yes” and favorably supported the idea as long as that was the will of the people. Tunisian religious scholars have a long history of rejecting absolutist Islamism emanating from the Arabian east as far back as the nineteenth century. Yet, the country is also very cautious about not offending Saudi sensibilities and has to maintain a tenuous level of accommodation with some of its own Salafist inhabitants.

Historically reformist movements within Islam have been closely linked to the concept of ijtihad (or independent reasoning) which the mainstream of Islam considers to have been resolved after the four main schools of jurisprudence were established. However, Tunisian modernist scholars of Islam such as Youssef Seddik have also noted that leaving the doors of ijtihad open can also lead to more austere interpretations later and insist on reading modernist insights into original texts. Regardless of the approach, the enshrinement of key modernist elements into the Tunisian constitution such as the specific rebuke of the orthodox Islamic concept of takfir (or apostasy), despite some ambiguities on application, is a highly positive step. The specific criminalization of incitement of violence on this basis will prevent bullying against religious minorities or dissenting interpretations of Islam which countries like Pakistan have endured. Thus Tunisia has been able to achieve a compromise between Islamists and secularists through a very carefully calibrated process of constitutional persuasion. The next step will be to see if the governance that this compromise will deliver can also provide for much-needed development in the country.

Meeting Sustainable Development Goals for Lasting Peace and Democracy

While democracy has certainly reaped freedom of expression and a voice for every citizen in governance, the development dividends of the revolution have been less tangible for the country. There is a palpable impatience within the Tunisian youth regarding economic development and employment outcomes of the revolution which they feel more empowered to voice. As George Packer stated in one of his essays on Tunisia for The New Yorker: “Tunisians have found the freedom to act on their unhappiness.”

As with most democratic transitions, there is always a concern about efficiency being sacrificed at the altar of pluralistic deliberation. However, most long-term studies indicate that short-term loss of efficiency is usually recuperated in terms of overall long-term growth trajectories of countries which have less inequality and greater social mobility. The empowerment of labor unions and the populace in general led to a demand for more government jobs and higher wages as well in the private sector. Yet, with a decline in tourism following the terrorist attacks of 2015 and a reduction in exports due to strikes and unrests the economic capacity of the country was severely strained, leading to inflation and further social anxiety.

Tunisia’s exports are fairly diversified, comprising insulation wiring, textiles, olive oil, phosphates and petroleum in recent years. Phosphate mining was severely impacted by the social unrest and labor demands leading to a reduction in output as was the manufacturing sector. The olive oil sector was initially resistant to any negative impacts from social unrest and grew in 2013-2014 to its highest level ever, making the country the world’s second largest olive oil producer at the time (after Spain). However, a drought the following growing season led to a precipitous decline in production which locals blamed on water management practices instead.

Economic inclusion will require a growth of new employment opportunities and entrepreneurship will be key to such a trajectory, particularly targeted entrepreneurship that also helps meet the country’s sustainable development goals. Award-winning startups like Next-Protein, which is using insect protein to develop animal fodder and fertilizer; or robotics firm Enova, often galvanized by the educated diaspora returning home, are gaining traction. Green energy projects such as the new solar farm proposed by a British company is  also a promising sign. Donors are taking notice of this need and focusing on technical programs to encourage entrepreneurial activity. The World Bank has recently launched a major new youth employment program in the country as well. The country’s young Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, has surrounded himself with able advisors from the diaspora and beyond. This rising generation of Tunisian politicians, technocrats and activists deserve our cautious optimism and support.

Tunisia is a country which defied all odds to negotiate a governance system that has reconciled immensely divergent political perspectives. Such negotiations and compromises inevitably have a cost of immediate economic inefficiency. Yet the investment in civic engagement is likely to have an ultimate payoff in harnessing more resilient institutions for delivering lasting development outcomes.