The Tunisian transition

January 11, 2014 - 6:47:48 am

With a caretaker government taking office, Tunisia is moving fast towards democracy.

In a region plunging into chaos, Tunisia is showing the way forward. Mehdi Jomaa took office yesterday as the country’s new premier to lead a caretaker government until elections are held later this year. The transition was smooth; there was no blood spilled on the streets, no recriminations and protests; no self-consuming hatred. All the leading parties came together to implement a formula that was worked out through consensus because they knew that an alternative will chaos and a repetition of Egypt and Libya in Tunisia. Jomaa, who is a former industry minister, will head a non-partisan cabinet after compromise between the Islamists and secular opponents to end a crisis three years after the country’s uprising against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Are Egyptians and Libyans listening?

If the Middle East is a dark tunnel, Tunisia provides a huge ray of hope. This small North African nation has edged closer to establishing full democracy since 2011 than any other Arab Spring country. There are chances that the coming elections will be free and fair and before that, the caretaker government will take solid, significant steps to repair the battered economy. The choice of a technocrat to lead the government is a wise one. Jomaa ran an aerospace parts business in Paris before and is fully qualified to lead the country at a time of crisis.

Tunisia can serve as a model for other Arab countries in that it has been able to grapple successfully with the problem of Islamism. Tunisia struggled with divisions over the role of Islam and the rise of militants since its uprising, but the assassination of the two opposition leaders last year triggered a crisis. Instead of choosing chaos, Tunisians decided to step back from the brink. One factor which has helped in the transition is that Tunisia is one of the most secular countries in the Arab world. 

At the same time, the resignation of former premier, Ali Larayedh, an Islamist who spent years in jail under Ben Ali, on Thursday, is a defeat for the leading Islamist party Ennahda which won elections in 2011. The resignation is an admission of the party’s failure to deliver on promises of stability and economic progress. Tunisians are more worried about the high cost of living and high unemployment after the uprising that inspired revolts against long-standing autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

One of the challenges of the new government will be to rein in Islamic extremists. The country has seen a rise in extremism and terrorist attacks attributed to shadowy Islamist groups. But with a swell of public discontent with Islamists, bringing them under control will not be too difficult a task•