Tunisia: Achieving the Impossible

25/10/2011 23:58 BST | Updated 25/12/2011 10:12 GMT

The dramatic death of Muammar Gaddafi last week took the world's attention away from quieter but still momentous events in Tunisia, where the wave of Arab uprisings started last December.

Prior to those protests, Tunisia was seen as one of the most politically repressed countries in the region, with tight restrictions on freedom of speech and political activity.

Yet Tunisia's protestors peacefully ousted their authoritarian ruler in a matter of a few weeks, and less than a year after the protests began, the Tunisian people have held a peaceful, popular, democratic election with more than 90% turnout, which was described by international monitors as free and fair. These are achievements that, just twelve months ago, would have been regarded, almost universally, as impossible.

Preliminary results today suggested that the single most popular party is An-Nahda, an Islamist movement, but that no party would win an outright majority. In response to these results, much of the debate in Europe today has been whether European governments should be worried about the empowerment of Islamists.

"Islamism" is a fairly unhelpful term, as it is a catch-all term that encompasses a wide range of very different groups.

For some European observers the notion of Islamism has been discredited by the abusive practices of the Taliban, the violence of Al-Qaeda or the human rights abuses of the Iranian government. But this is rather like saying that the corruption of Tunisia's former ruler, who was secular, has discredited secularism.

The mainstream Islamist movements that are gaining ground across the Arab world - including An-Nahda - are often keen to cite Turkey's AK party as an example of successful Islamism.

The Turkish model is hardly perfect. But it provides a useful - and sadly rare - example of an Islamist party that has found some accommodation with secularists, developed good relations with the US, and overseen significant economic growth.

Meanwhile, the mainstream Islamist movements are far less likely to hold up either Iran or Saudi Arabia as an example. The groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, from Tunisia to Egypt, are keen to participate in democratic systems. Their appeal is based partly on their claim to religious legitimacy, but also on perceptions that they offer something authentic and rooted in local culture and tradition, that they are committed to social work, and that, as pious politicians, they will not be corrupt (a claim particularly easy to make when in opposition).

The newly elected assembly will be charged with writing a new constitution. This is likely to involve a fierce debate about the role of religion in politics and society. Tunisian secularists - many of them inspired by the French model of laicite - are worried that An-Nahda is more conservative than the rhetoric of its leadership would suggest.

They fear that An-Nahda, which scored a PR coup by fielding a female candidate who does not wear hijab in one of its urban constituencies, will seek to roll back some of the gains made for women in the workplace or the divorce courts, that it will be intolerant of free speech, or will clamp down on alcohol.

There will be some fierce rows to come. But this is part of the country's self-determination. Tunisia's significant secular constituency will itself act as a constraint on An-Nahda in the constitution-writing process - as has already happened in the election process, where An-Nahda, like all parties, was required to field a 50:50 mix of male and female candidates.

An-Nahda itself will face competing internal influences as it tries to balance demands of, for instance, the educated urban middle class with those of the more conservative rural poor.

Perhaps a greater risk to the success of Tunisia's transition comes from the economy. Revenue in the tourism sector - which provides a fifth of GDP and is a major employer - fell by 39% year on year in the first nine months of 2011. Investors are taking a "wait and see" attitude to the transition. The new political players, Islamist or secularist, will need to address bread and butter issues of living standards and job creation if they are to lead a successful transition.