The Arab spring of 2011 has unfortunately turned into a kind of political winter in most of the countries concerned. Tunisia looks like a happy exception. The National Constituent Assembly – in effect, an interim parliament – has just voted in favour of a draft constitution, grounded in a broad political consensus.
The Arab spring began in Tunisia, after the persecution and suicide of a street vendor led, remarkably, to a movement that overthrew the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Not all has gone smoothly since then. Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, had a reputation for moderation, but its use of its electoral plurality after the October, 2011 election was not always measured or prudent. For a time, Ennahda’s more radical elements were harassing secular citizens.
Recently, however, Ennahda has been chastened by the disastrous experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The electoral success of the Egyptian Islamists went to their heads, and now the Brotherhood (and arguably Egypt itself) is worse off than before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
Rachid al-Ghanouchi, Ennahda’s long-time leader, has candidly acknowledged, “What happened in Egypt was an earthquake. It definitely had an impact on our decision” – that is, to limit the place of Islam in the draft constitution. The draft does say that Islam is the religion of Tunisia, but sharia is not mentioned; still less is it declared to be a principal source of law, in contrast to Egypt, where sharia was given that status as long ago as 1971. Most Tunisian secularists appear to be happy with this compromise wording, and Mr. al-Ghanouchi has frankly acknowledged that the country is too ideologically divided to be either purely Islamist or purely secular.
The current consensus might not have been achieved but for the outrage over the assassination last year of two secularist politicians. Tunisia isn’t yet an unmitigated success story. The country, and its politics, will no doubt continue to suffer from a range of stresses and strains. But for the time being, the outlook at the source of the Arab spring is surprisingly good.