THE BLOG
12/16/2014 01:30 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Tunisia's Adenauer: The 'Old Man' Essebsi

It's a recurrent motto in the Arab region: revolutions make things worse. The so-called Arab Spring went from a bad situation for many in the region to a truly terrible one, with one notable exception -- Tunisia. The region can learn a lot from Tunisia, which is completing a successful political transition. Even before the official results of the country's parliamentary elections were revealed, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, called Beji Caïd Essebsi, the leader of the secular party Nidaa Tounes, and congratulated him on Nidaa Tounes's plurality of seats won in the October 26th parliamentary elections.

Mr. Essebsi, 87, led Nidaa Tounes to win the largest bloc of seats in the parliament and himself came first in the first round of the presidential elections with over 39 percent of the vote. He is today the only politician capable of taking the necessary steps to restore stability to a country that is mired in economic malaise and witnessing a dangerous rise of terrorism. Beji Caïd Essebsi is Tunisia's Konrad Adenauer and shares many common characteristics with the former German Chancellor, who was dubbed Der Alte ("the old one"). Beji Caïd Essebsi would be one of the oldest democratically elected presidents in world history. Like Adenauer, he still maintains his tireless work habits and great political savvy. He is a champion of the free market and liberal democracy. During Adenauer's years in power, Germany achieved democracy, stability, international respect and economic prosperity. Tunisia now is in need of that same Wirtschaftswunder (German for "economic miracle") and it is possible to achieve it with the leadership of a charismatic and experienced political figure like Beji Caïd Essebsi.

His opponents, however, emphasize his connections to the former government, raising fears that Mr. Essebsi will gain too much power if he leads both the legislative and executive branches, possibly overseeing the "return of the dictatorship." His opponent in the presidential runoff, Moncef Marzouki, 69, a dissident, physician and human rights activist who has served as interim president since 2011, received 33.43 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. His party suffered badly in the legislative elections, holding on to only four seats, punished for its role in an Islamist-led coalition government that ruled for two chaotic years. Marzouki and his allies in the coalition, the so-called "troika," ruled the country without a clear strategy for the management of public affairs and failed to fulfill the expectations of the vast majority of Tunisians, especially the youth.

Since taking office in 2011, the interim President Marzouki has freed over 17,000 convicted criminals from prison and sent the wrong message to those who use violence and challenge the law. Marzouki and his allies in the troika were too lenient with the Salafists, who stormed the U.S. embassy and torched the American school in Tunis on September 14, 2012, just three days after the killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya. Those arrested did not even see jail time after their trial. They merely received a two-year suspended prison sentence. The troika failed to rein in the extremists who challenged law and order by participating in bloodshed and acts of violence that culminated with the assassinations of Tunisian left-wing politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

Against this backdrop, Marzouki paid the political price for his inability to manage security and subsequently worsened the already ailing economy. Tunisians prepare now for the runoff between Beji Caïd Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki. Ennahda has not fielded a candidate for the presidency, and is not officially backing any candidate.

Beji Caïd Essebsi can lead Tunisia in its fight against terrorism and unemployment during the next five years. He can implement much needed structural reforms in a challenging domestic environment in order to improve the investment climate and generate stronger and more inclusive growth. He can also ensure a transition to the youth through the next elections - he has, after all, done it before. Tunisia had been repressed for so long that it is no surprise that no younger leaders have emerged. Hopefully, the near future will give a chance to younger leaders for the next elections.

Tunisia has made impressive progress, but it will need enlightened, constructive leaders and massive support from Europe and the U.S. to continue to succeed. Tunisians had high expectations after the revolution, but there is widespread frustration at the government's failure to deliver on those expectations. The good news is that Tunisia managed to prevent a derailment of its transition towards democracy. The then-ruling party, Ennahda, out of pragmatism and a fear of the Egyptian scenario, successfully provided an example of a peaceful handover of power.

There are good chances that Tunisia will stay on its successful path of consensus-building, becoming a model in the Arab region. Ennahda will remain an important political actor in Tunisia, and if they abandon their project of Islamizing society and become a genuine law-abiding player, they could be an important guarantor of the balance of powers in Tunisia's political scene today, as well as a powerful example of successful political Islam in the region.