As Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Noah Feldman writes: All dictatorships aren’t created equal. The Tunisian regimes from 1957 to 2011 drastically limited basic rights, and jailed and tortured opponents. High-level corruption was endemic. Yet unlike the dictators in Egypt or Syria or Iraq, these regimes worked out a complex relationship with civil society institutions, allowing them to organize in exchange for their willingness to live with the regime. Protests by the labor union took place under Ben Ali, and supporters of the union will sometimes say they laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring protests.
At the same time, civil society alone can’t account for the Tunisian exception. Some credit also goes to a culture of political consensus. During my multiple visits Tunisia to observe the constitutional process, I was constantly told by the delegates that they felt a powerful impulse from the expectations of their constituents that they reach a result the overwhelming majority of Tunisians could live with.
The origins of political culture are always hard to pin down, and Tunisia’s need for consensus is no exception. But it’s probably fair to say that the revolutionary period against France helped create a sense of national unity. Tunisia is very small, which can contribute to a sense of collective identity. (But doesn’t always: see Lebanon.)
Tunisia also has the legacy of the first constitution in any Arabic speaking country, dating back to 1861. Although I was frequently struck by how little the delegates referred to that history, nonetheless it shows that at least the idea of elite cohesion in a fundamental agreement has deep roots.
But the most decisive feature of the Tunisian exception, arguably slighted by the Nobel committee, is that the potential for conflict between secularists and Islamists was reined in repeatedly by acts of compromise and realistic negotiation on both sides. Key to this process was Rashid Ghannouchi, an Islamic democrat who went from being an important theorist of how Islam can be compatible with democracy to the leader of the movement and party known as Ennahda, the Renaissance.
At several crucial moments, Ennahda under Ghannouchi chose to pursue concession rather than going for a maximal role for Islam in the constitution. After protests in 2012, Ennahda decided to remove Shariah from its constitutional draft or ideology. And after the killing of prominent leftists led to further protests and crisis, Ennahda, which had been democratically elected as the plurality party in the assembly, agreed to resign from the government.
As for the secularists, they deserve credit for treating Ennahda as a genuine, legitimate, democratically elected political force. [Continue reading…]