In a new democracy, a critical moment occurs when the first elected leader peacefully gives up power. In the United States, that came when George Washington left the presidency. In the Arab world, a similar event will soon take place in the country that sparked the Arab Spring three years ago this month.
Tunisia’s elected government has agreed to step down in coming days as part of a political consensus to end a stalemate in the North African country. Such an amicable handover is remarkable enough in the Middle East. But what stands out is that an Islamist party, Ennahda, is giving up the reins of state, albeit under political pressure.
Rather than cling to power based on a claim to theological infallibility, the party recognizes that a society of differing forms of faith must be governed by secular democratic principles. Ennahda’s humble act will be a moment as historic as the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi three years ago on Dec. 17. His singular protest for dignity and justice inspired a popular uprising that ousted a dictator and woke up the Arab people to their inherent right to freedom.
The Arab Spring has faltered in places such as Egypt, Syria, and Libya. And despite its own rough moments, Tunisia provides a lesson in how to adopt the necessary qualities – freedom, tolerance, equality, inclusiveness, and adherence to law – to build a democracy. “Our country serves as a candle that lights the region,” said Ennahda’s founder, Rachid Ghannouchi.
Since the post-revolution elections in 2011 that brought Ennahda to power, Tunisia has seen political upheaval, rising unemployment, and the assassination of two high-level opposition figures.
The turmoil created widespread distrust of Ennahda, forcing it into talks with the opposition. The two sides agreed to let a respected technocrat, Mehdi Jomaa, run the government until fresh elections in early 2014.
Tunisia is more fortunate than other Arab states in having many pro-democracy activist groups, a history of secular rule, a large educated middle class, and close ties to Europe. It has also learned from many recent mistakes made in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Iraq.
Rather than totally exclude members of the former regime, for example, Tunisians welcomed those with a record of reform. Civilian leaders learned not to alienate the military. And leading politicians showed a spirit of compromise at the right moment. They were all too aware that winner-take-all power struggles – such as those in Egypt – can lead to disaster.
But the biggest lesson is that Islam and democracy can be compatible in Tunisia if there is dialogue, respect, and an accommodation for religious views and practices. Winning those traits in a democracy is more powerful than winning elections.