The Muslim world has a lot to learn from Tunisia. Even before the official results of the country’s parliamentary elections were revealed this week, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, telephoned Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the secular party Nidaa Tounes, and congratulated him.
The final tally showed Nidaa Tounes with 85 seats and Ennahda with 69. Amy Hawthorne of the Atlantic Council, who observed the voting, said it had a “real feeling of openness, transparency and inclusivity” and minimal irregularities. This kind of transition — a peaceful and broadly accepted democratic election in which defeat is gracefully accepted — stands in contrast to the upheavals elsewhere since the Arab Spring, including the brutal military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the wars raging in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Tunisia’s experience was all the more remarkable because Ennahda swept to power in the 2011 elections after a revolution that overthrew a dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It led a coalition government for two years, then handed power — peacefully — to a caretaker government. This paved the way for the Parliament to adopt a new, more progressive Constitution in January that expanded civil and political liberties and the role of women. But Ennahda, which was excluded from governance before 2011, paid a political price for its inability to manage security and revive a weak economy.
The new government will continue to face those problems. For instance, some 3,000 Tunisians have joined the Islamic State. The government will have to figure out why its citizens are turning to extremism and how it can provide the education and jobs that will afford them a more constructive purpose. Experts say many young people did not vote, a troubling sign of disaffection from politics.
Given the parliamentary vote, Mr. Essebsi is a favorite in next month’s presidential election. But his party, a mix of former government officials, left-wing politicians and secularists, does not have enough seats to govern alone and will need coalition partners. While there are divisions between secularists and Islamists, Mr. Ghannouchi is a strong voice against
extremism and believes in democracy. Mr. Essebsi must work with Ennahda and guard against a resurgence of the country’s authoritarian past.
Tunisia has made impressive progress, but it will need enlightened, constructive leaders and support from the West to continue to succeed.