The Arab Spring of three years ago has collapsed in almost every place it began, dealing a blow to an idea long considered universal: progress. Civil war in Syria, a return to military rule in Egypt, chaos in Libya, fighting in Yemen – all have reinforced the stereotype of a stagnant Arab culture immune to humanity’s march toward civic ideals.
Except in Tunisia.
In the North African country where the democratic spark was first lit for disenchanted Arabs, the revolution has been rescued by another revolution in recent days after a year of rising tensions and two political assassinations. The ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has peacefully given up power in the face of widespread dissent. And a constitution packed full of rights was approved with near unanimity by an elected body.
Tunisian leaders, who decided to put political peace ahead of winner-take-all power plays, let out a big cheer in the Constituent Assembly on Sunday. But cheering them on even more were world leaders who hold steadfast to the notion of progress as inevitable.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Tunisia’s achievements as a “historic milestone” and “a model to other peoples seeking reforms.” The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, saw them as “important progress.”
The country’s new charter, chiseled out through genial compromise rather than street protests or armed conflict, sets a high standard for the rest of the Arab world. It guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience,” which should ensure tolerance for non-Muslim faiths and nonbelievers. It enshrines equality for women. And while it honors Islam as the national religion, it does not make it the basis for law.
Such ideals remain as much an experiment in Tunisia as they are also a model for other Arab nations. Putting them into practice – in elections later this year and in a judicial system yet to be formed – could yet be difficult for Tunisia. The economy needs a boost (and help from abroad) to reduce a high 17 percent unemployment.
But for now, this restart of the Arab Spring can serve to renew the seed of hope not just for democracy in the region but for the idea of progress as available to all. Regression may sometimes happen. But given the sweep of history, it is certainly not the norm for the future.