Two interesting developments occurred in Tunisia last month that inspire confidence in its young but promising democracy. 

First, the elected leader of Ennahda, the main Islamist political party and member of the governing coalition, announced at the party’s 10th congress in May that it would separate politics from religious preaching.  “We are going towards a party which specializes in political activities…We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam,” Rachid Ghannouchi declared.  While the announcement reflects the party’s gradual shift in recent years away from religious identity politics, it also suggests the party will make a concerted effort to appeal to new members by formulating sound political and economic policies.  Although it’s too early to congratulate Ennahda, the announcement bodes well not only for the party – broadening its core constituency – but may also strengthen Tunisia’s political party system as a whole by encouraging genuine competition among the country’s political movements for the people’s trust and votes, a core ingredient of any healthy democracy. 

Second, recent polling data suggests Tunisians feel a strong sense of national identity compared to their North African neighbors.  A survey regarding religion and politics in North Africa released in May by Sigma Conseil, a Tunis-based survey research firm, and the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung found that a majority of Tunisians consider themselves “citizens” before “Muslims”.  What does this mean?  Compared to Egyptians, Libyans, Algerians and Moroccans, Tunisians’ self-identity is linked to a greater degree to the civil state than the institution of religion, an indication that even among Islamist and secular Tunisians both share a strong sense of reverence for the nation.  During the turbulent years after 2011 when Islamist and secular Tunisians clashed over the country’s post-revolution identity, social tensions rose to an alarming degree and threatened to scuttle the fledgling transition before it had a chance to take root.  IRI’s own polling adds credence to the idea that religion should be divorced from government; public opinion data from November 2015 demonstrates a steady decline over the previous 21-month period in the number of Tunisians who look to Islamic text for law making and government. 

For a country struggling as much with social reconciliation as post-revolution state building, these statistics suggest Tunisians can find common ground in loyalty to the nation in what remains delicate years of compromise ahead, especially on consequential economic and social reforms.  For Tunisia to realize its goal of building a state that serves everyone – secularists, Islamists, youth, women, those in the interior – Tunisians must feel confident that democracy can deliver.  But it’s incumbent on every citizen to compromise.  Developments like these suggest Tunisia is on the right path.  

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