In an Arab world long on one-man rule but short on peaceful handovers of power after an election, this moment should not go unnoticed: On Thursday, the first freely elected president of Tunisia, Béji Caïd Essebsi, died. On the same day, under a democratic constitution, the head of the legislature temporarily took over the office. Plans to elect a new president are already in motion.
No protests, no gunfire, no military coup.
Tunisia is again a template for other Arab nations in how to avoid the trap of personality-based or militaristic rule and the upheavals they bring. After the 2011 Arab Spring, it was the only Middle East or North African country to topple a dictator and then lock in basic freedoms and fair elections. Now after eight years – a short time to root any new democracy – it has passed a key test by preparing a peaceful transition.
To put some context around this feat, recall that Syria, Libya, and Yemen are in civil wars, Egypt has returned to military dictatorship, and many Arab monarchies still exist. Algeria and Sudan are in difficult transitions from authoritarian rule. Meanwhile Iraq, despite the strong influence of Iran, can claim similar peaceful transitions.
Since adopting a new constitution in 2014, Tunisia has had successive prime ministers. But a central figure has been President Essebsi, whose political pedigree extends back to the country’s six decades of one-man rule. After being elected in 2014, he stepped up to the task by reducing the power of the Islamist-inspired party Ennahda, and presiding over many reforms, notably for women, as well as helping launch a “war on corruption.” He was called “the father of consensus.”
Yet Tunisia, which was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, may face other tests in the years ahead, perhaps even in how it conducts the coming election. Islamic militants still threaten violence. And the economy has not improved since 2011, lessening popular support for democracy.
Yet it has laid many cornerstones to sustain elected government. Now it is adding another one with a transition to a new president. This will help further cement the idea in the Arab world that a free and equal people can pick their leaders without losing their heritage or culture.