Hoping for a happy ending to Arab Spring |
Gulf Today - 09 May, 2012
Author: Frida Ghitis
Is it reasonable to hope for, to expect, a happy ending to the Arab uprisings? For the answer, we should look to the birthplace of the revolutions, Tunisia, where a contest for the future of Arab freedom is charting a path for the rest of the region.
Of course, it is important to focus on Syria, where the leader Bashar Assad is brutally holding on to power, and on Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the largest political force and the military is reluctant to relinquish control. But for a glimpse at the future, for a preview of what could be the best-case scenario for liberalism in the Arab world, the best place to look is tiny Tunisia on the Mediterranean.
One and a half years ago, before the term “Arab Spring” entered the lexicon, a Tunisian man set himself on fire. His protest against hopelessness and government abuse unleashed the “Jasmine Revolution” in what was already the most progressive country in the Arab world. The success of street protests there inspired the rest of the region to challenge dictators.
Tunisia is the one place where there is a real chance of success for the forces that advocate freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality for women, and a secular rule of law. The country is 99 per cent Muslim, but many of its people are progressive and believe that the country should be governed on the basis of laws written by human beings elected by citizens, not by clerical interpretation of religious documents.
Not everyone agrees, so the lines are drawn and the battle has been joined. Women’s groups and liberals have been fighting it out on every level, in the streets, at universities, in courtrooms and in the legislature. Last fall, Tunisians went to the polls, choosing an assembly that is running the government and overseeing the writing of a new constitution. The top vote-getter was the en-Nahda party, a moderate Islamist group, which received 37 per cent. It formed a coalition with progressive parties.
En-Nahda has promised to remain business-friendly and true to moderation. But many liberals doubt its word, especially because the ultra-conservative Salafis have become more aggressive in their demands. It was encouraging when the head of en-Nahda said the constitution will not even mention Sharia laws, as a source of legislation. Instead, it will say Islam is the state religion. Much will depend on what happens with the economy. The revolution did not start because the people demanded Islam. They demanded freedom and democracy, but it was the lack of a future, the lack of jobs that lit the match. The government desperately needs to get the economy moving. Tourists have been returning, but jobs remain scarce.
To create prosperity, Tunisia needs to attract foreign visitors and foreign investors. Radicalism would work against that. Tunisia has a larger percentage of progressive citizens. It depends on foreign tourism, which has helped moderate views over the years, and acts as a barrier to radicalisation. More than anything, it has a fiercely committed community of women and men who are leading the struggle against those who would push the country away from democracy. Tunisia is the canary in the coalmine of the Arab revolution. If democracy fails to materialise there, it is likely to fail everywhere else. If it succeeds in Tunisia, it stands a chance to emerge some day in the region.