HUFFINGTON POST
12/22/2014 07:36 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Tunisia Has A Democracy, If They Can Keep It

WASHINGTON -- Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first arose, has a new democratically elected government following presidential elections over the weekend, and the U.S. couldn't be happier about it.

"Tunisia has provided a shining example to the region and the world of what can be achieved through dedication to democracy, consensus, and an inclusive political process," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday morning in a statement. "Tunisia’s achievements this year lay the groundwork for a more stable, prosperous, and democratic future for the country. ... The United States will continue to support Tunisia as it joins the ranks of the world’s democracies, and we call on other members of the international community to do the same."

Kerry and the State Department issue similar statements about fledgling democratic developments all over the world. Yet Tunisia is an especially important case. The hope is that Tunisia's new government will last -- and serve as proof that democracy can work in Muslim societies long accustomed to autocratic rule and the suppression of homegrown political Islamist movements.

U.S. officials have told The Huffington Post that with chaos across the Muslim world -- from war-torn Syria, where President Barack Obama has reluctantly become involved to fight the Islamic State, to once-reliable ally Yemen to Libya, another country where the U.S. intervened -- they are desperate to see positive change in Tunisia.

But analysts of the Muslim world warn that the U.S. should not be too confident in Tunisia's stability just yet.

The country has been transitioning politically since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, its dictator for more than 20 years, was overthrown in 2011 in the first revolution of the Arab Spring. Ennahda, the country's Islamist movement, gained control of the parliament in elections held after Ben Ali fell. As part of a deal between Ennahda and two other parties, the presidency went to Ennahda ally Moncef Marzouki, a populist Ben Ali critic. He took power in December 2011.

Last year, Ennahda's parliamentary representatives stood down en masse, dissolving the parliament and forcing new legislative elections in October. With the completion of a new constitution, a presidential election was also set for this past Sunday.

Ennahda chose not to field its own presidential candidate. So the contest pitted Marzouki, who emphasized that he was distinct from the Islamists, against a former Ben Ali ally, Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi's secular Nidaa Tounes party had overtaken Ennahda in the parliamentary elections and won more seats than any other party. Essebsi, 88, now appears to have won the presidential contest with a lead of more than 10 percentage points.

His victory will cement a historic success: By selecting a new parliament and president through elections, Tunisia becomes the first Arab country to have completed such a democratic transition since the Arab Spring.

But Essebsi's opponents, including Marzouki, have warned that his rise to power could pave the way for the revival of Ben Ali-style authoritarianism -- and thus undermine the victories won in the 2011 revolution. Tunisia, they argue, risks going the way of Egypt, where autocratic rule was restored last year following a military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government.

"There's a lot of celebratory talk about Tunisia. I think it deserves more caution. ... I worry that this kind of celebratory talk will lead the U.S. to take its eye off the ball and say, 'Well, Tunisia's doing fine,'" said Shadi Hamid, a fellow with the Brookings Institution and the author of Temptations of Power, a recent book on political Islam.

Beyond its symbolic importance, Tunisia is a concern for actors far beyond its borders because its political chaos has given Islamist extremists space to thrive. More than 3,000 Tunisians have joined the Islamic State, making the country one of the group's major sources of foreign fighters. Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda affiliate that the U.S. holds responsible for the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, also has a strong presence in Tunisia.

While some international observers might believe Essebsi is a better partner to tackle these problems because he is secular, Hamid warned that the new president actually "has much weaker democratic credentials than anyone in Ennahda."

On Sunday, protests broke out in the southern city of Hamma after Essebsi's victory became clear. Young people came out to express their frustration with the rise of a man associated with the old regime.

"There should be international pressure on Essebsi to live up to the world's expectations" of a democratically elected president, Hamid said, pointing to the country's dependence on foreign aid -- from the U.S. and the European Union as well the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- as a potential source of leverage. Because of Tunisia's problems, he warned, "there is going to be a temptation for Essebsi to say we need a strong president."

"He doesn't have any qualms asserting state power," said Hamid, "and that can be a dangerous slippery slope."

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