Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).
This may cause some to wonder if Tunisia is truly an Arab Spring success story. They shouldn’t. Terrorist attacks also happen in countries such as France and Britain and the United States without calling into question the fundamental legitimacy of the state. Granted, Tunisia’s democracy is much newer and more fragile, but it has been making impressive strides since popular protests, sparked by the self-immolation of a fruit seller, ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Since then, Tunisia has seen two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2014, as well as one presidential election, in late 2014.
The elections have been free and fair (as I saw for myself), and the results have been relatively heartening. The Islamist Ennahda party was the top vote getter in 2011 but after taking power it voluntarily gave up the prime minister’s office to a technocrat in order to reassure voters worried about an Egyptian-style Muslim Brotherhood takeover. In the more recent parliamentary election, Ennahda finished in second place, with 28 percent of the vote, with the top vote getter being a secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”), which won 37.5 percent.
In the December presidential election, the winner, with 55.6 percent of the vote, was Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old warhorse who served in numerous cabinet posts under Ben Ali and helped to found Nidaa Tounes. The new prime minister Habib Essid is another veteran of the Ben Ali cabinet and member of Nidaa Tounes, but in order to form a government he had to share power with Ennahda and two smaller parties.
Thus Tunisia has a truly representative government led by secularists but with significant representation from Islamists who, by previously giving up power, have shown they are less authoritarian than their counterparts in Egypt or Turkey–or simply less able to seize power in such a secular state.
To be sure Tunisia has significant challenges ahead, particularly in reviving a moribund economy that has been weighed down by high levels of corruption and state spending and in maintaining security in the face of terrorist groups that remain all too active. If the current government can’t deliver on the promise of a better life for ordinary Tunisians, the consequences will not be good for the future of Tunisian democracy, And there is no doubt that greater freedom has also provided greater opportunity for some terrorist groups to stage attacks such as the one today. The attack today is a significant blow because it jeopardizes the tourist trade which is a vital part of Tunisia’s economy and its best bet for economic growth.
But on the whole, and despite setbacks like the one today, Tunisia remains an impressive, if fragile, success story–the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring. It deserves more American support and more American notice. It shouldn’t take a terrorist attack for Americans to pay attention to Tunisia.Top