What’s Tunisia got that Turkey doesn’t?

What’s Tunisia got that Turkey doesn’t?

Head-turning remarks by Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, about abandoning political Islam have left their mark on Turkey’s debate on secularism. Turkey’s parliamentary speaker recently recommended the removal of secularism from the country’s charter – putting paid to suggestions that Turkey was a secular Muslim model for the region – while the Tunisian parliament’s largest party, which hails from Islamist roots, has declared its commitment to secularism, recommending the exclusion of religion from politics. 

Considering Ghannouchi’s political past, particularly Ennahda’s ambiguous approach to Salafi jihadists, we have every reason to doubt his sincerity. However, five years after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia and its path deserves appraisal.

The Arab Spring categorically revealed that the idea of a “model state” was too problematic and unfeasible.

Beyond the fact the models had their own flaws and were subject to changes over time, as with Turkey, the promotion of democracy was also inapplicable to countries that differed from each other in terms of their levels of institutionalism, socio-political structures and behavior of their decision-makers.

As such, there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for political modernization. Besides, political setbacks and counter-coups during the Arab Spring displayed once more that neither modernization nor democratization consisted of a linear progressive process.

Against this background, Tunisia stands out as an exceptional case in the Arab Spring for having come a long way on the bumpy road of democratic transition, ending decades of authoritarian governance.

A homogenous society, neutral military and robust civil society with strong trade unions have all contributed to Tunisia’s success. One should also add the quality of the education system and the high literacy rates, which could explain the societal tendency toward secularism from a modernization perspective.

But Tunisia has its own flaws just like any other country. Lacking natural resources and crippled by a culture of corruption, the country struggles to maintain its industry by relying on foreign aid and investment. 

One of the major problems facing Tunisians has always been the high rate of unemployment, which averages around 15 percent – rising to 30 percent or more in some parts.

It was this frustration that led Mohamed Bouazizi to immolate himself in 2010, thus sparking the Arab Spring.

Five years on, the post-revolutionary transition period has failed to deliver the expected prosperity to Tunisians.

Worse, terrorist attacks last year dealt a severe blow to tourism, which accounts for 8 percent of the economy.

Leaving aside all the destabilizing effects of the civil war in Libya, having a large number of young unemployed frustrated people explains why Tunisia – despite its secular culture – has become the country that exports the highest number of foreign jihadists in the region.

Subsequently, on material terms, making comparisons between Tunisia and Turkey is unfair, as Turkey clearly outstrips Tunisia in many aspects. However, what makes Tunisian politics more promising than Turkey’s is its respect for consensus building. 

Unfortunately, the high levels of political polarization in Turkey render reconciliation almost impossible. What’s more, compromise is often perceived as weakness in our political culture.

In contrast, in Tunisia, Ennahda chose to deliberately blaze a new trail by compromising on ideological tenets rather than escalate tension. 

After suffering under dictatorship for decades, Tunisian society embraced secular democratic principles as the guarantee of their freedom.

It was through the political will for consensus building that the National Dialogue Quartet emerged in 2013 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015 for mediating a peaceful political transition. 

But the story might have taken a completely different turn if Ennahda had refused to hand power to a technocratic caretaker government in 2014. 

At the end of the day, Ghannouchi might be trying to increase Ennahda’s appeal to a larger constituency so as to transform it into a mass party, but there are lessons to be drawn from Tunisia’s experience for Turkey, particularly at a time when it is sliding dangerously toward a majoritarian understanding of democracy – or worse.