Hope for Tunisia, and a Dose of Reality at Home

There’s no such thing as a perfect revolution, but Tunisia’s recent elections demonstrate what may be the best of all possible worlds when it comes to overthrowing an Arab dictator and the aftermath. Put aside all the handwringing about that moderate Islamist party winning; Halloween is over, and it’s time for the West’s perennial bogeyman of Islamic takeover to go back under the bed where it belongs. And no, these elections weren’t perfect. Turnout was high, and international monitors were encouraged by what they saw, but protests and riots in Sidi Bouzid—the place where it all started—over the disqualification of a local party in the elections made it clear there is a long way to go.

Considering how far Tunisia has come—from an authoritarian regime to democratic elections in less than a year—it is hard not to applaud. Tunisian democracy may look more like Western democracy than you think. If the campaign promises of the triumphant Ennahda (Renaissance) party are broken, Tunisians are responsible for keeping them in line, and after the events of the past few months, no one is shy about voicing discontent with the government.

Tunisia remains at the head of the pack when it comes to the Arab Spring (here’s hoping someone comes up with a better name before the next big development). Despite the flaws of its elections and the uncertainty of its future under a brand new government, it still has a better chance at a stable, popular regime than any other country swept by this year’s uprisings. The country is smaller, not to mention generally more secular and more educated, than Egypt or Libya. It also has not had to deal with the same intense international attention and interference that other countries have received; some commentators earlier this year remarked that slipping under the international radar would be the best thing to foster a quick, quiet transition to popular rule.

Conversely, if the people’s revolution can’t succeed in Tunisia, it is difficult to be optimistic about anyone else’s chances. As more information comes out about the convoluted procedure for Egypt’s upcoming elections and pundits scramble to predict Libya’s future, it seems like their momentum has stalled. Add to that the sort of bloody and seemingly intractable conflicts playing out in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, and Tunisia starts looking better and better. Maybe it’s whatever essential spark of courage and frustration that ignited the country’s protests in the first place or the fast transition from dictatorship that has not been possible elsewhere, as despots cling to power and ultimately to life. It’s too early to call Tunisia a success, but its odds are certainly better than for others. Even if it takes years to iron out the bumps and scrapes of a brand new government and a society energized by revolution, those who first began to raise their voices will call that a small price to pay in exchange for a country where they can at last be heard.

Finally, our criticism of and pessimistic predictions for Tunisia and other would-be democracies can be a touch hypocritical. Religious conservatives limiting certain rights? Politicians not keeping their promises? Surely these things are utterly incompatible with democracy. You know what they say: those in glass houses undergoing Republican primary campaigning should not throw stones. New Arab elections should prompt some introspection about just how representative our political system is. And with our own protests across the country, maybe we have more in common with Tunisia than we thought.

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