The world’s eyes are on President Obama this week as he rallies a coalition of nations to “destroy” the extremist Islamic State (IS) and its terrorist-led territory. Yet if the Arab world is ever to throw off its many forms of tyranny -- from theocracy to autocracy to monarchy -- it also needs a model to emulate.
As an old Arab proverb states: “To lead by example is better than a commandment.”
Which is why it may be helpful in watching the war on IS to also be hopeful about recent progress in Tunisia.
This North African country, which initiated the 2011 Arab Spring, continues to amaze. Even though it faces terrorist attacks and deals with a religious Islamist political party, Tunisians go to the polls Oct. 26 to elect a new parliament and then again Nov. 13 to choose a president.
Along with a popular Constitution approved earlier this year, these votes will finally consolidate the country’s transition to democracy. But more than that, Tunisians are also well aware of the effect they are having across North Africa and the Middle East.
As Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa told the Agence France-Presse news agency last week: “What we are trying to build is in opposition to the model that the terrorists and those behind them are trying to impose.”
He dismisses the risk that terrorists in Tunisia will try to disrupt the election. “The risks exist but we are confronting these fears,” he told AFP. “We have a clear idea of the reality and don’t have any fears.”
Or, to quote another Arab proverb, “Leave evil and it will leave you.”
Tunisia is being rewarded for its model behavior. The World Bank, European Union, and International Monetary Fund are boosting its finances. The United States is supplying Black Hawk helicopters and other military aid to help Tunisia deal with terrorist groups entering from Algeria and Libya. And on Monday, more than a dozen nations were hosted at a conference on the investment potential in Tunisia.
To help cement its newfound freedoms, the government also set up a Truth and Dignity Commission, patterned after the one in post-apartheid South Africa. The panel will dig up facts about human rights abuses under the two previous dictatorships.
What accounts for Tunisia’s success so far? For one, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked group Ennahda that won the first parliamentary election has backed off from dominating the government. It gave up power after two secular opposition leaders were assassinated by Islamist militants. And now it will not propose a candidate for the presidential contest, saying it prefers an inclusive government.
The competing parties have decided to be “open to each other” and “avoid all the extremism,” according to Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, leader of Tunisia’s Democratic Progressive Party.
Tunisia still has far to go in providing economic hope for its mass of unemployed youth. Unless a newly elected government can implement difficult reforms, such as reducing burdensome government subsidies, popular support for democracy may erode.
Despite the Arab Spring’s disappointments in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, Tunisia remains a guiding star for Arabs, one that should eclipse any appeal among young Muslims to join IS.