Tunisia is a work in progress, but it deserves credit [THE NATIONAL]

October 15, 2015

As the Arab world witnessed the bestowing of the Nobel Peace Prize upon Tunisian civil society organisations, some commentators have argued this is proof that the Arab Spring is not dead after all. Is that the point, indeed, to be drawn?

Four years ago, there was still a sense that the Arab world was enduring “growing pains” in the midst of an Arab Spring, and it wasn’t going to be easy. Certainly, in October 2011, with the killings of mainly Coptic Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo by state forces, the raging war in Libya and the turmoil elsewhere, no one was naive about it. But there was still an enduring belief that there was an alternative choice – beyond autocracy and oppression.

This year that sort of sobering attitude has been largely replaced by something far more cynical. We see how, even far beyond the Arab world, there is the suggestion that the international community should work with Bashar Al Assad in Syria against ISIL. In the process, it appears far too many people have forgotten that Mr Al Assad’s regime is responsible for far more deaths than ISIL. But such is the logic of this cynical, short-sighted security paradigm, we must ignore all other considerations and go after the terrorists.

Against that backdrop, what kind of hope is there, really, for any Arab Spring? That is a luxury, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t. Tunisia is, per capita, one of the largest countries responsible for delivering recruits into the hands of radical groups like ISIL. The number of Tunisians fighting in Syria, Iraq or Libya is staggering. It would have been very easy for Tunisians to fall into that mode of “this is not the time for anything but security; everything else must be put to one side as we sort this out”. Other countries in the region, such as Egypt, have taken that approach, so Tunisia could have easily done the same.

That choice might have been particularly easy in 2013, when the Quartet that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize carried out its work. Tunisia had suffered a score of assassinations, and the rise of ISIL in the region more generally could easily have lent credence to the notion that it was time to pull the plug on any type of transition. Fundamental rights make a country stronger, but they are also harder to protect.

But that was the choice that the Tunisians made, between Islamists like Ennahda and others among the leftist and liberal camps. The alternative they chose allowed for the democratic experiment in Tunisia to continue – not to succeed, because that still has not yet happened, but to continue. The transitional process in Tunisia remains a reality, where tension between different political forces exists, but there is a level of consensus on the basic “rules of the game”.

It was not the easiest choice to make. Arguably, it was the best and most enduring one, because it served to underpin a sustainable stability that could allow Tunisia to prosper. But it required political forces in Tunisia to recognise that in revolutionary uprisings such as these, everyone has to win. Accountability has to be ensured and consensus has to be there at the beginning. Had the Quartet not succeeded in 2013, one can only imagine that the challenges that Tunisia continues to face would be far worse today.

Four years after the uprising in Tunisia, Tunis is now one of the most significant centres for civil society in the Arab world. It is where human rights organisations and civil rights groups feel most at liberty to carry out their work, without fear of reprisal or repression. Many an Arab Spring country hoped to be like that, but Tunisia got there first. One hopes they won’t be the last.

Tunisia is one of the smallest Arab countries in the region, but its contribution is certainly not minor. In history, the judgement of revolutionary periods takes a great deal of time, and the revolutionary uprisings that took place in 2011 are the consequences of decades of oppression, repression and neglect. One has to look at those uprisings as such: they are reactions when other options at reform had shown themselves impossible. They are, necessarily, chaotic because they were born out of turmoil.

But such historical eventualities also have the option of working themselves out over time. Tunisia is an example of that – and one hopes that the example it has shown will be recorded in history books.

Congratulations, indeed, are due to the people of Tunisia – and one hopes the Arab world continues to benefit from their positive lessons.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Source: The National

Photo Credit: The Independent.

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