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Up Front

A Historic Compromise in Tunisia? What Rome Can Teach Carthage

Jonathan Laurence

Next Sunday’s first round of the Tunisian presidential election is unlikely to produce an outright winner but the country can already lay claim to the most democratic success story in the uncertain post-Arab Spring period.

Earlier this year, the Islamist-led National Constituent Assembly in Tunis produced a pluralist constitution that set the stage for a parliamentary contest on October 26 in which the incumbents lost. That simple fact of political alternation is a historic milestone: Ennahda is not the only Islamist party to lose the confidence of its initial protest-vote electorate, but it is the first to live to tell the tale.

Islamist participation in the democratic process

The birthplace of the Arab Spring offers a tantalizing third way toward Islamist participation in the democratic process: a Goldilocks outcome between Turkish majoritarianism and Egyptian militarism. Tunisia is different: it is smaller, lacks a hegemonic army, and Ennahda doesn’t have anywhere near a majority of votes.

The alluring tableau, however, conceals a fragmented elite and a scattered electorate. Twenty-seven parties declared candidates for president, although a handful have dropped out. Last month, more than 15,000 candidates running on over 1,300 party lists vied for 217 parliamentary seats. Only two-fifths of eligible adults registered to vote and less than two-thirds of them actually voted.

The main pattern to emerge from parliamentary elections is the same that has defined the country for decades: an existential battle between Islamists and anti-Islamists with a majority for neither. The Islamists lost six percentage points (32 percent) but the secularists were not exactly embraced. Taking into account non-registration and abstention, the victorious party Nidaa Tounes’s share of the legislative vote (38 percent) corresponds to roughly one out of five eligible voters.

These results accurately reflect a highly polarized society. Nidaa Tounes is led by presidential frontrunner Beji Caïd Essebsi, an 87-year-old who served under every regime since 1956 independence and who stoked voters’ fear of Ennahda’s “seventh century project” during the campaign. Ennahda’s leadership framed the election as a contest “between supporters of the revolution and supporters of the counter-revolution.” It is the only Muslim-majority country where nearly half of the population claims to never step foot in a mosque.

Do Tunisians favor “authoritarian government”?

For the first time since the 2011 revolution, polling this summer showed a majority of Tunisians favoring “authoritarian government” over an “unstable” democratic government. Also for the first time, Ennahda declined to field a presidential candidate to contain apprehensions about them. While Essebsi mostly enjoys an untainted reputation his party, Nidaa Tounes is a loose coalition including many holdovers from the previous regime.

The last time electoral democracies experienced a comparable juncture was not in 2013 Cairo or Gezi Park, but rather Rome during the tense 1970s. In 1976, the Italian Communist Party received one-third of the votes, making it the largest Communist electoral bloc west of the Iron Curtain. Frequent small-scale terrorist attacks took place against the backdrop of global tensions between NATO and Warsaw Pact members.

It is hard to remember a time when the term “socialism” provoked as much angst as “Sharia” does today, but Tunisia stands at a crossroads analogous to the old Cold War alternatives of Washington and Moscow, with Qatar and other Gulf states filling the shoes of the old “evil empire.”

Recognizing that Italy was too divided to govern alone, party leader Enrico Berlinguer proposed a historic compromise (compromesso storico) with the archenemy Christian Democrats to bridge a seemingly impassible cultural-political gap.

Ennahda party faces doubts

Today’s Ennahda party faces the same doubts as Communist leaders in postwar Europe: are they truly pluralist democrats? Do they accept power sharing? The executive director of Nidaa Tounes, Mondher Belhadj Ali, said in an interview in Tunis earlier this year that Ennahda must undergo the equivalent process of the various leftist parties in Europe during the Cold War. The party needs to renounce its “jihadist logic,” Belhadj said, in the same way that the German left distanced itself from international Marxist-Leninist creed at Bad Godesberg in 1959.[1]

To be considered trustworthy despite its association with a revolutionary ideology, the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, or PCI) underwent key shifts. Its leadership broke with the international Comintern by supporting Italy’s NATO membership. They also refused Moscow’s order of “intransigence” through silent partnership with a Christian Democrat-led government, giving way to the “via Italiana” – an Italian path – to socialism.

Why did the PCI pursue this path at a moment of rising strength, when their share of the vote was peaking at 32 percent? Italian Communists had no doubt noticed that NATO countries were willing to forego democratic outcomes in Chile three years earlier in the name of political stability and anti-communism.

“Alternative to the Islamic State”

It is also apparent that Ennahda’s leadership has correctly interpreted the West’s silence after the arrest of Egypt’s first democratically elected president last year. The party’s agreement to omit the word “Sharia” from the constitution, its decision to ban the extremist group Ansar Echaria and its voluntary departure from political posts in 2013 have been taken as early signs of a willingness to compromise. There is no exact Islamist equivalent to Moscow and the Comintern, but Ennahda has offered itself up as “the alternative to the Islamic State.” Ennahda has also adopted an official party line not to govern alone but only in alliance with other parties. Party leader Rached Ghannouchi said he hopes to avoid “the repetition of the Egyptian bilateral polarizing model.”

Political pressure already forced Ennahda and its partners to wage not merely ideological but also actual military war on violent Islamist extremism. The martyrs of the Tunisian Revolution now include not only the two secular politicians who were assassinated in the first half of 2013 but also the 39 Tunisian soldiers who have been killed since then – including five in an attack earlier this month.

The interim government has not hesitated to combat religious enemies of the state. President Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist, looked ashen in an interview in his office this summer: “I deeply regret it: it means killing and arresting people but I have to defend this state” – at times leading to the deaths of a dozen combatants per month, including six on election weekend.[2]

In the years since the revolution, through a mixture of coercion and conviction, the religious affairs ministry whittled down the number of prayer spaces under the control of Salafi extremists from over 1000 in 2011 to under 100 today. This summer, the government fired an imam who refused to say prayers for a soldier who died in a raid on an Islamist cell.”[3]

Like Berlinguer before him, Ghannouchi has made timely visits to meet with American officials and offer democratic reassurances – but to far greater effect than the Italian Communists ever managed. Washington’s reception of the PCI is captured by the chiaroscuro headshot of Berlinguer on a June 1976 cover of Time declaiming “The Red Threat.” In 2012, the magazine named Ghannouchi one of the “World’s Most Influential People,” someone who offers “a vision of a moderate, modern and inclusive political movement.”

Critics will point out that shortly after the compromesso storico, the Communist Party’s electoral base bottomed out. Left-wing terrorism did taper off but not before the Red Brigades kidnapped and executed the Communists’ main Christian Democratic interlocutor, former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, in 1978.

Compromise may lead to national unity

With counterterrorism support to resist such extremist violence on the fringes and more enthusiastic backing from Western capitals, however, a Tunisian historic compromise may yet deliver the national unity that the country needs to advance to self-confident partisan rule – and mutual faith in political alternation. The recent announcement of joint U.S.-Tunisian counter-terrorism exercises and a gift of $14 million worth of equipment and supplies are small in scale but their timing conveys a broader reassurance.

The lack of a clear political mandate may turn out to be the hidden advantage of this inaugural election season in Tunisia. The country’s political parties can now use the first full presidency and parliamentary session of a democratic Tunisia to blaze a third way between military rule and majoritarian Islamist democracy.

Just as Italian communism was a different animal than the Soviet Communist Party, Tunisian exceptionalism is a real thing. The accelerated modernization period under Independence leader Habib Bourguiba after decolonization left behind the lowest illiteracy rate and lowest birthrate in the neighborhood. Its relatively peaceful democratic revolution has now passed several institutional milestones. As President Moncef Marzouki put it, “if the experiment in Islamic democracy doesn’t work here then it’s unlikely to work anywhere.”[4]

The Italian Communist Party voted to dissolve itself almost 24 years ago, not long after the Berlin Wall fell and sealed its obsolescence. An equivalent geopolitical shift in Sunni Islam – away from the hegemony of ideologically rigid Gulf States – is as unimaginable now as was the thaw of November 1989. But a great compromise between the region’s modern nemeses – secularist and Islamist – could well dislodge the first brick.


[1] Jonathan Laurence interview with Mondher Belhadj Ali, May 2014, Tunis, Tunisia.
[2] Jonathan Laurence interview with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, May 2014, Carthage, Tunisia.
[3] Jonathan Laurence Interview with Tunisian Minister of Religious Affairs Mounir Tlili, May 2014, Tunis, Tunisia.
[4] Ibid.

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