01/30/2012 07:05 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Tunisia's Revolution, an Example for the Region?

"People thought: you get democracy, you get jobs," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki explained to us, as he described the fragility and urgency of the situation facing the government and the dependency of achieving political reform on securing economic growth. If job creation is not forthcoming, the public could lose their patience with the path to achieve democratic institutions.

Despite the significant progress Tunisia has made in its political process one year after its revolution, a fragile economy and the danger of political polarization threaten its future. Improving the economy and job creation are the primary focus of the government with unemployment currently higher than it was before the revolution. Tunisia's new coalition government's failure to address the economic needs and the creation of jobs could derail the political project of democratization including the building of strong institutions.

Substantial and growing polarization in the political arena risks slower economic recovery, and could be a strategy of the counter-revolutionary forces, or those forces that were unsuccessful in the recent elections who wish to see the project of the current coalition fail.

The government -- the liberal-secular-left-Islamic coalition that includes the president, elected members of National Constitutional Assembly and Ennahdha leaders -- consistently outline the urgency of the country's economic situation. They stress their openness to international assistance and request international support from the EU, Gulf, the U.S., as well as having broader links with Asia, Africa and South America.

Achieving pluralism in the political arena is crucial to the success of a strong democratic system and national unity in Tunisia. The current coalition of secular, leftist and Islamic faith-based parties appears well aware of the weight upon its shoulders.

Illustrating these economic and political challenges, and perhaps symptomatic of them, political parties and diverse sectors of society respond differently when asked their opinion of the challenges facing the country.

Those parties and organizations commonly referred to as 'secular', some of whom may be more accurately referred to as 'hard line' secular, (due to their uncompromising rejection of Muslim political actors, in contrast to the governing coalition liberal secular parties,) state that the biggest challenge will be the writing of the constitution. They argue that Ennahdha is an unchanged political force from the late 1980s when the party contested elections, and assert that the four key challenges in the constitution writing process will be: gender equality (personal status law), relation of religion and state in the democratic system, introduction of capital punishment, and enshrining freedom of belief in law.

Members of the coalition government, including Ennahdha, respond that on all four issues or criticisms outlined by hard line secularists, they have already indicated their position and that there will not be any controversy regarding those articles of the constitution.

As one advisor to the Ennahdha leadership stated, "It will be a secular constitution but it won't be called secular. It will have a civil government, pluralistic, neutrality of religion and it will equal secularism, gender equality?"

Ennahdha has also repeatedly stated that it has no intention of changing the personal status code in which Tunisia's laws on gender equality are maintained. Moreover, party leaders emphasize that the main challenges facing Tunisia are economic and that despite social and political divisions, they believe success in the economy is fundamental to the continuation of the democratization process.

The divisions between Ennahdha and its centre-secular political partners, and the more hard line secularists often evoke accusations of 'double speak' from each about the other: do they really mean what they say?

Such suspicions are also heard from Western nations as they pledge to support Tunisia's transition, but are hesitant to believe wholly in Ennahdha's statements.

These same accusations are heard from those in Ennahdha, from the youth leaders we spoke to, and more senior members of the organization, 'does the West really mean what it says; will the West really treat us as equal partners...'

Only action will prove or disprove such sentiment. Across the board, Ennahdha's political discourse was praised, but 'will they deliver' is the key concern, and challenge from Ennahdha's position. In our meetings with Ennahdha from the youth leadership to the senior leadership and elected members of the National Assembly, there is a clear determination to deliver on both the economic and political challenges facing the country, and carry out their assurances that the constitution will not be an obstacle for the National Constitutional Assembly.

The potential for Europe and the U.S. to become partners in the rebuilding and successful transition to democracy is clear. Prior to the revolution, around 70% of the country's economic exchanges, imports and exports, were with European countries. Foreign direct investment is channeled through some 3,000 companies who employ around 450,000 Tunisians. The tourist industry is worth in the region of U.S. $3 billion and employs one million people.

Advisors to Ennahdha argue that the opportunity for Western nations, through substantial, consistent and honest cooperation with the new transitional government, will lead to the formulation of a working model that is Arab and Muslim, democratic, prosperous and modern.

Such a model would support, they argue, Western national security objectives better than previous policies of cooperation with autocratic regimes, by aligning Western policies with the popular legitimacy of the new elected government.

"The Ennahdha model can be a partner and key for the West for the Muslim world" a senior member of Ennahdha urged.

There are signs, according to Ennahdha officials, that the U.S. has changed its initial perspective (that over the summer was distracted by events in Cairo) to view Tunisia as the example in the Arab world, as the first country to achieve a constitution and government.

Tunisia's coalition government, with support from the international community, has the opportunity to deliver an example, a working model, for the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the Arab world. Such a model would enable parties rooted in Islam not to be seen as potential spoilers or oppressors of rights and freedoms, but rather an integral part of a new economic and political era in the Middle East and North Africa, bringing prosperity and opportunity to their citizens after decades of political suppression.

John L. Esposito is University Professor & Professor of Religion & International Affairs, Georgetown University. Julian Weinberg is the Nyon Process Programme Manager, Forward Thinking.