Lessons from Tunisia both for Turkey and the West

Lessons from Tunisia both for Turkey and the West

“Your luck is that your Islamists are not successful economically,” a Turkish friend of mine told a Tunisian friend.

She was joking, but as with all jokes, it encompassed a truth; in fact a crucial truth that carries a message that should pass across to Western decision and opinion makers: “If Islamists prove unable to govern successfully they will leave power. Just as they come with the ballot box, they will go with the ballot box.”

Tunisian voters did exactly that to their “Islamists,” punishing the Islamist Ennahda Party that had run the country for two stormy years after the 2011 revolution, which had triggered the Arab Spring throughout the wider Middle East.

Tunisia’s Islamists had ruled in a coalition with secular parties, but willingly stepped down in favor of a government of technocrats when they faced popular unrest due to the deterioration of security and the economic situation.

By doing so, Ennahda did a great favor to political Islam, which has become the nightmare of some in the West. Unfortunately, the prevailing view in the West is that once political Islamic movements grab power, they will not let it go. Islamists would come to power via democratic means, but once in power they will become undemocratic and will not leave from for breathing to other political movements. That is why the West largely remained silent when the military toppled the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.

Ennahda has proven that this prevailing view about Islamists in the West is not necessarily true. It did not insist on remaining in power and accepted its defeat during the elections.

The Nida Tunis (Tunis Calls) Party, running on an explicitly anti-Islamist platform, won 85 percent of the seats in Parliament, giving it the right to lead the coalition government.

The party, which includes businessmen, trade unionists and politicians from the old regime, has ruled out forming a coalition with the Islamists, which came in as the second biggest party from the elections.

Some commentators believe that this is a mistake. After all, despite three years of political and economic turmoil, Tunisian politicians from different political parties had succeeded in agreeing on a Constitution and holding elections.

It is only natural for Nida Tunis to want to rule with other like-minded parties instead of Ennahda. However, excluding Ennahda could overshadow the process of compromise and consensus building that still remains very shaky.

In the meantime, we should also reflect on what makes Tunisia differ from other countries in the Middle East. The level of women's empowerment is the highest among Arab countries, the army’s role in political life is restricted, and state institutions are better rooted when compared to others. These are the first things that come to mind and they are worth thinking about, obviously without forgetting that each country has its own specific characteristics.