Surprising things are happening in Tunisia, the country that gave birth to the Arab Spring uprisings three years ago. Politicians — men, women, Islamists and pro-West liberals — have been meeting in open session to debate, negotiate and peacefully work out a new constitution, which is near completion.
The debate scenes, while occasionally raucous, sharply contrast with the explosion of violence in Syria and turmoil in Egypt. Tunisia's ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, took a remarkable step in September toward solidifying the democratic transition by voluntarily yielding power. Rival parties have agreed that the new constitution specifically will not mention Sharia, or Islamic law. Fine points are still under debate, but all agree on guarantees of free speech and equal rights for women.
For Americans and other Westerners worried about the region's march toward greater religious radicalism, Tunisia offers hope that there is a pluralist democratic light at the end of the tunnel.
The big question is whether other Arab countries will emulate Tunisia's experience. We asked two experts, Paul Salem and Khalil al-Anani of the Middle East Institute, for their assessment, and neither was optimistic. The inspirational role that Tunisia played in prompting the Arab Spring doesn't necessarily translate into a model for the democratic transition, they told a World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth audience.
They were quick to note, however, the very positive role played by major European governments in counseling Tunisia's leaders throughout the negotiations and offering economic assistance to prevent social upheaval from derailing the process. That constructive involvement is definitely an ingredient missing in other countries struggling through the transition.
The Obama administration's reluctance to embrace anti-dictatorship forces in countries like Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen is based on the real danger that elections could put hard-line Islamist politicians in power or that a power vacuum could help militants to take power by force.
The track record hasn't been promising, particularly in Egypt, where a democratically elected Islamist president was ousted in a military coup. Egypt's military has gone to the opposite extreme by arresting critics while muscling through a pro-military constitutional referendum.
Tunisian leaders appear to have stepped back from the brink and recognized that a slow and gradual transition is most likely to guarantee fundamental rights and ensure that everyone gets a seat at the table. Its example is one for the West, as well as the Arab world, to examine more closely.