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The very model of a modern Arab democracy

Tunisia's newly formed elected government includes both Islamist and anti-Islamist parties. With much of the Arab world in turmoil, this model of tolerant pluralism needs to be the region's lodestar.

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    Tunisia's Prime Minister-designate Habib Essid delivers a speech in the parliament to present his government in Tunis February 4.
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A recent World Bank report on development took a look at “mental models” and how they “often capture broad ideas about how the world works and one’s place in it.” The bank even tested the mental model of its own staff experts on poverty. It asked them what percentage of the world’s poor believe the future depends mostly on themselves. The staff guessed 20 percent. The poor actually say 80 percent.

The report’s point is that mental models should not only be frequently questioned but should be wisely chosen, as they can help reveal reality, much like a sculptor sees a figure in marble before starting to chisel. “Mental models affect where we direct our attention,” the report states.

This is useful advice for the Arab world, which is now in violent upheaval or under harsh rule from Libya to Syria to Bahrain. The region needs a better mental model than, say, a military-run regime in Egypt or an intolerant monarchy in Saudi Arabia. 

It has one in Tunisia, the North African nation where the Arab Spring started in 2011. It is the one Arab nation to make good on the revolt’s hope of ending repression. In December, Tunisia elected a new president, Beji Caid Essebsi, under a new democratic constitution. On Thursday its parliament voted in a coalition cabinet that includes five political parties, including the Islamist party, Ennahda. The president’s anti-Islamist party, Nidaa Tounes, had won 86 of the parliament’s 217 seats, while Ennahda holds 69.

While Tunisia still has plenty of problems, such as high unemployment, this display of political compromise and principled democracy sets a marker for the region. Making room for both secularists and Islamists at the table of governance is not easy in a Muslim country. Yet Tunisia has found a way.

Egypt’s Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to include many non-Islamists in government during its brief time in power. And now the anti-Islamist military that reigns in Cairo is hunting down leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt, which for decades set the model for the Arab world, has lost that mantle of leadership.

Tunisia’s achievement is part of “the emergence of citizen-driven ideas of agency, rights, due process, and pluralism becoming an undeniable part of the political conversation in the region,” as Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation puts it. 

The old mental model of Arab countries as incapable of pluralistic and tolerant self-governance, or too divided over the role of religion, must come to an end. Like the World Bank staff, many current Arab leaders seem to be out of touch with the people’s models of thought.

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