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By Barry Rubin

Is Tunisia, the Arab world’s historically most moderate country in social and intellectual terms, headed for Islamism or some kind of difficult but democratic future? I want to rethink my conclusions on this point. Or is it just the timeline that needs to be extended?

It should be stressed that Tunisia has more prospects for achieving democracy and avoiding radical Islamism than do Egypt or Libya. In Egypt, 60 percent of the vote was obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in the first round, with claims of up to 75 percent in the second round. Excluding Christian voters–who presumably didn’t vote for Islamists–that means somewhere between two-thirds and 80 percent of Egyptian Muslims support radical Islamist parties. Only the army, which is eager to suppress moderates but would rather make deals than fight the Islamists, stands in the way of radicalization. In Libya, the political situation is far less clear but radicals have the guns while tribal and regional conflicts are likely to promote conflict and extremism.

In Tunisia, though, there is a strong base for moderation. Incidentally, Tunisia is the only country where there is a European-style left, in keeping with Tunisia’s Mediterranean orientation and relative openness to Western influences. Tunisia’s new interim president Moncef Marzouki, promises a moderate republic. But the real defense against an Islamist dictatorship, even an elected one, is that the majority doesn’t want it and those people are unlikely to change their minds. Incidentally, I wonder if one difference in Tunisia was that many women voted against the Islamists given the more modern outlook and long history of relatively more rights than elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world.

It is easy to identify what went wrong in the Tunisian electoral process: the ridiculous divisions among the anti-Islamist forces. Of 217 seats, the Islamist party, al-Nahda, won 89. What about the other 128? The answer is that basically all but a half-dozen seats—that went to pan-Arab nationalist or far leftist parties—went to moderate anti-Islamist forces, social democratic or liberal parties.

In short, there is a strong potential base in Tunisia–unlike almost every other Arabic-speaking country–for a real alternative to an Islamist transformation of the society. Still, the Islamists are ruling and will be able to do a lot to create the kind of society they want. The question is: How much?

There are some other important things favoring Tunisia. It is not important in international affairs and there is not a real passion there for foreign adventures, other than to refuse any dealings with Israel. The country and population is small enough that Western aid and efforts might have a real effect in raising living standards and helping civil society develop.

Finally, the very size of the secular-oriented forces and the weakness, relative to Egypt and Libya, of even more radical (Salafist) Islamist forces means that the Tunisian al-Nahda party has to be cautious. One thus doesn’t have to believe in the moderation of al-Nahda or of its rather slippery leader, Rached Ghannouchi, to think the Islamists won’t push too hard for transformation. Consequently, it is conceivable that al-Nahda might be voted out of office in future and have to accept that verdict.

It isn’t that Ghannouchi and his crew are actually moderate though he plays the role better than his counterparts in most other countries. As one Tunisian liberal, blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, puts it: ”On the outside it looks like a moderate party, but the truth is different.”

When confronted with his documented radical political views and even genocidal statements toward Israel, he simply claims these are Zionist fabrications. And of course, like his Egyptian and Palestinian counterparts, he doesn’t have to worry about the Western mass media exposing him. But he does have to worry a bit about Tunisians’ horror at the Islamists’ ascension.

The Tunisians, however, have even more to worry about. One factor that’s often too underestimated in Western analyses of the post-“Arab Spring” societies is that of intimidation and unofficial violence. This has reached huge proportions in Egypt where both criminal anarchy and armed Salafists have run rampant. There is also the repression of the 10 percent who are Christians. In Egypt, it won’t matter if there’s no law against women dressing as they please or Christians repairing churches if anyone who tries to act in that manner is assaulted.

There’s been some effort at intimidation in Tunisia, notably at one university where the demand for women to be veiled has led to a couple of riots. But the situation might be better there. Precisely because al-Nahda needs to avoid antagonizing a large sector of the populace—something that doesn’t really apply elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world—it might rein in vigilantism. Tunisian anti-Islamists can mount large demonstrations in support of human rights and civil liberties, something unthinkable in other Arabic-speaking countries.

Remember that in Egypt the “moderate” demonstrations that are being repressed by the military are against the army, not the Muslim Brotherhood. The reformers either live in a dreamworld–in which a faster transition to Islamist rule will solve their problems–or they are just too afraid (one understands why) to take on the Brotherhood and Salafists.

Can the Tunisian moderates unite? It won’t be easy. They are divided by the egos of their leaders and to some extent by the policies they espouse. Their substantive differences are within the basic Western spectrum, far smaller than the difference between their vision and that of the Islamists. Moreover, to achieve power, glory, and money (through patronage) some would prefer to make a deal with al-Nahda rather than each other.

The Turkish case has shown that the anti-Islamists can be such incompetent politicians and so prone to personal ambitions and bickering as to throw away their country. In Lebanon, Hizballah has been able to turn non-Islamist, non-Shia (even Christian) political forces into satellites. So it is quite possible that the Islamists will outmaneuver everyone else in Tunisia as well.

Still, in Tunisia the Islamists may well have reached their upper limit of popular support. The majorityknows what it wants, and it isn’t Islamism. Finally, and this should be taken seriously, al-Nahda needs a real coalition to rule, something the Egyptian Islamists will only do for show.

How much does this matter for the region? Not at all. Whether or not Tunisia succeeds isn’t going to affect any other country. It might even provide cover for Islamists to point to al-Nahda and claim that they, too, are “moderate.” Yet, of course, it is quite important for the Tunisians.

This is also significant for Western policy. When European officials asked me what they can do to help post-“Arab Spring” regimes, I’ve suggested two main projects: concentrate on Tunisia and also on Jordan, where aid and involvement might do some good.

A collapse of the Jordanian regime, which I don’t expect but the country does have grave economic problems, would make Egypt look like a picnic. Jordan has suffered a huge setback since prospects that the Gulf Cooperation Council might add it as a member and provide $1 billion in aid have now evaporated overnight.

At any rate, Tunisia, the country where the “Arab Spring” started, might still have a chance. The way things are going, it could be one of the few survivors in the current Islamist political tidal wave in the region, and even that small exception cannot be taken for granted.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books include Israel: An Introduction (Yale, 2012); The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).
 

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