In the chaos of the Middle East, there is still one place that’s not a disaster zone. It is Tunisia, where the Arab Spring was born and where the dream of co-existence between Islam and democracy continues to be championed — and put into practice — by people like Rashid Gannouchi, the founder of Ennadha, the country’s main Islamist Party.
The years since the 2011 revolution that overthrew Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian president, have hardly been smooth and there is still plenty of uncertainty as Tunisia prepares for legislative elections on Oct 26 and presidential elections a month later.
But Mr. Gannouchi is convinced that “our democracy is the real response to terrorism.” He is also optimistic that it will succeed and that in time other countries in the region will follow suit, despite violence in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Libya.
“If we choose a title for Tunisian democracy, I would use two words, consensus and compatibility, between Islam and democracy,” he said during a meeting at The Times last week. “I think through this method we saved our experiment, we prevented our experiment from collapsing last year,” he added.
Mr. Gannouchi has long been an influential force in Islamic thought on these issues. After a decade of torture and imprisonment under repressive Tunisian regimes, he fled to London. He spent 22 years there before returning home in 2011, after a fruit seller in the town of Sidi Bouzid unleashed the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire as a protest gesture.
Also in 2011, Ennahda won the largest share in Tunisia’s first multi-party election and led the country’s democratic government in a three-party coalition. Two years later, the assassination of two leading opposition figures resulted in renewed protests and charges that Ennadha tolerated violent extremism, although Mr. Gannouchi says: “I believe extremism and terrorism are against Islam.”
After lengthy negotiations, the party agreed to give up its leadership of the government in favor of a technocratic prime minister. This paved the way for parliament to adopt a new, more progressive constitution in January, 2014, that expanded civil and political liberties and the role of women.
Mr. Gannouchi says Ennadha made the “sacrifice” to step aside because “the interests of democracy are better and dearer for us than the interests of the party.”
While the constitution was a significant achievement, the upcoming elections will further test whether Tunisia can stay on the democratic path and peacefully transition from one government to another.
The country is still struggling to reform state institutions, cope with economic problems and deal with security concerns, including refugees streaming in from Libya, the Ansar al Sharia terrorist group and some 2,500 Islamists who have gone to fight with Islamic State. Mistrust between the Islamists and secularists also remains an issue.
Still, Tunisia has more going for it than most countries in the Middle East – it is small in size, has an army with no history of politics, a middle class, and a relatively well-educated citizenry. It doesn’t suffer from the same sectarian and tribal divisions as other countries.
One of Mr. Gannouchi’s main messages while in the United States is the need for continued American assistance for Tunisia. There is real danger that Washington’s attention, and its limited resources, will be consumed by the new war against the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL.
That would be a colossal mistake. Military action is only one, limited, way to deal with extremists. The more enduring solution is to build strong, inclusive democratic states that can address the root causes of extremism. Tunisia is a good bet and deserves America’s maximum effort.