Tunisia remains a beacon of hope in the Arab world

HA Hellyer writes how Tunisia, even with all its problems, has managed to remain the place that people come to for inspiration.

Visitors tour the medina, the old city of Tunis. Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters
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When I arrived in Tunisia this week, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party faced one of its most challenging moments as dozens of its parliamentary deputies left the party. Meanwhile, one of the more poignant examples of dialogue in North Africa, the Hammamet Conference, is underway and, in a few weeks, representatives of Tunisian civil society will receive a Nobel peace prize. And neighbours to the north, east and west, as well as Tunisians themselves, are still worried about Tunisians flocking to ISIL and radical extremism. This is Tunisia in 2015.

Nidaa Tounes, a motley crew of non-Islamists including secularists and leftists, won a plurality of seats in Tunisia’s first elections after the revolutionary uprising in 2010-11. That meant that 86 members of the 217-seat parliament were from Nidaa Tounes. Today, that number has dropped by 31.

There is no risk of the government falling as a result – it still has the seats and alliances it needs to continue, and the former Nidaa Tounes deputies have declared they will support it in any case. Nevertheless, the situation for Tunisian democracy is interesting, and while very specific to Tunisia, is relevant to the Arab world at large.

There is no genuine suggestion in Tunisia that a military intervention is going to "save the day" akin to Egypt in 2013 – the politicians in this discussion are thus, thankfully, left with no other option but to compromise, engage and find a way through.

Will that continue to be the case indefinitely? Certainly many from within the Ennahdha party, the main Islamist political current in Tunisia, don’t seem to feel so. The suspicion and fear that the gains of the past four years might be snatched away still exists, and it energises many people. That’s natural – and as successive electoral parliamentary and presidential transitions of power take place, that fear should become a part of the past.

Tunisia’s accomplishments cannot be taken for granted, though, and it is ever more important that against the deepening political rifts within the parliamentary system, there be a continual reminder that other models exist in the region. And many of them are not pretty.

Tunisia, even with its challenges, is still a place where activists of the region flock. Faced with enduring restrictions and restraints across the Arab world, large number of Egyptians, Libyans and others see in Tunisia a place where civil liberties are protected under the most progressive Arab constitution.

This week, a group of North African thinkers and activists have come to Hammamet to discuss the ideas of increasing inclusion and diminishing exclusion. It’s a theme that remains, alas, of great importance to the region. They’re engaging with each other, and also with Britons, with the conference being held under the auspices of the British Council, which has shown great foresight in assisting and supporting such a strategic dialogue. This is the only forum that brings emerging and established leaders in the Arab world and the UK together. There are few places in the Arab world where these discussions could be openly held.

But, as ever, the spectre of radical extremism overshadows events. The delegates will discuss extremism in the region as well as the UK. Tunisians make up a substantial proportion of those fighting in Syria and Iraq for ISIL, as well as in other radical groups around the region.

In Tunis, I encountered a brilliant researcher who is producing critical editions of classical Arab-Muslim texts – and he expressed his total lack of surprise that Tunisians had been deluded into joining such groups. To his mind, modern Tunisia had cut Tunisians away from their heritage of classical religion via intense modernisation on the one hand and an aggressive secularisation on the other. In such an environment, he argued, it was easy to find Tunisians unaware of the flaws and errors within radical religious thought – and, given the right circumstances, they might become vulnerable. It’s an argument worth pondering.

Looking back into that heritage, I walked by the mosque of Abd Al Rahman ibn Muhammad Al Hadrami in the old city of Tunis, and strolled past the house in which he was born. He's better known as Ibn Khaldun, a renaissance man who was considered by historians in the West and the Arab world as one of the great philosophers of the medieval era. British historian Arnold J Toynbee described Ibn Khaldun's Introduction as "a philosophy of history that is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place".

I was reminded that Ibn Khaldun wrote explicitly that the basis of government always had to be justice; that, at its core, a polity needed to consider justice first and foremost.

Justice alone will never be enough, but it is a critical and necessary component of any successful polity. It can never be perfectly achieved, but trying to achieve it is going to be far better than abandoning it on the altar of Machiavellian expediency.

Tunisia, slowly but surely, is hopefully going to be an example of that focus on justice for the Arab region. The region surely needs more of that.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer