Egypt is in a full-blown constitutional crisis. Syria is in a borderline civil war. Yemen elected its former vice president — who ran unopposed. Is the Arab Spring dead? If not, where is it living?
And the winner is . . . Tunisia, where it all started in December 2010 after a frustrated fruit seller set himself on fire. As you read these words, a freely elected assembly is drafting a new constitution from scratch. The coalition government has faced challenges, but it is functioning. A lively press and an active political class, both inside the 217-seat constituent assembly and outside it, are criticizing like crazy. Unions are pressuring the government to create more jobs, and the government is trying to do what it can without throwing fiscal responsibility to the winds.
Meanwhile, the Islamist democrats who won the most seats in the election have made an important announcement about Islamic law, or Shariah — that it won’t be mentioned in the constitution at all.
Tunisia is not all the way there, but having visited the country this month, I found it hard to escape the conclusion that this is what a democratic revolution is supposed to look like. If democracy is going to work in the Arabic-speaking world, Tunisia is becoming the model. If it fails in Tunisia, the prospects for every place else are very grim indeed.
The most important player in Tunisia’s democratic experiment is the Ennahda party, led by Rashid Ghannouchi, the most important Islamic democratic thinker of the last 25 years. Tunisia’s Islamists didn’t start the fire of the revolution. For years their party had been banned and its leaders exiled and jailed (Ghannouchi spent most of this time in London, preaching his distinct blend of moderate-yet-faithful Islam and liberal democratic values.)
Yet when Tunisia held its first free elections months after President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali’s departure last year, Ennahda strongly outpolled the various secular parties of the center- left and center-right that had sprung up in the Tunisian spring. Superior organization and name recognition helped, and many potentially secular votes were wasted on independent candidates. A major factor in Ennahda’s success was the appeal of its message of forward-looking Islam.
Without a majority, Ennahda had to form a coalition in the assembly. The presidency of the republic and the job of speaker of the assembly went to secular politicians. Ennahda took the prime ministership and the majority of the Cabinet. Ghannouchi decided to take no governmental role at all, instead remaining temporarily as head of the party — a choice reflecting his rejection of the politics of personal charisma.
The constitutional debate began poorly. Ennahda released a draft constitution of its own that would have made Shariah a “basic source” of general law. Secularists quickly protested, and then a new Salafi movement, made up mostly of young radicals new to the cause of religious fundamentalism, counterprotested. By opening the gates to this public dispute, Ennahda had unwittingly placed the most contentious issue first — and the fight threatened to upend the constitutional process.
Realizing they had miscalculated, the Islamic democrats said they would drop Shariah from the draft. Ghannouchi himself maintained, as he had for years, that a Shariah provision was unnecessary for Ennahda’s program, which is not for an Iran- style Islamic state but for a society infused by Islamic values.