Tunisia Blazes a Trail for Modern Arab Democracy

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Symbols count a great deal in international relations. If anything, they carry psychological weight that’s hard to ignore. And the weight feels all the more impressive when the party scoring a symbolic victory happens to be weak and under pressure from more sides than one.

The formal admission of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) into the prestigious UN specialized body, UNESCO, as its full member, with all the rights and privileges that flow from it, last October 31 is one such symbolic event. The PNA had been at UNESCO in the status of an ‘observer’ since 1974. But its drive for full membership stemmed from its thrust currently underway to become a full member of UN, an initiative opposed tooth-and-nail by Israel and its principal mentor, US.

Just as US has been at work at the UN-from the moment the Palestinians announced their intent to seek recognition from UN as a sovereign state-to stall the Palestinian initiative for statehood, it also pulled all its weight at UNESCO to frustrate the Palestinian drive. Of course there has never been a doubt with informed observers of the global scene how steadfast and redoubtable is US commitment to Israel to stand by it, come hell or high water. So US and its western ‘poodles’, such as Canada, for one, and Germany, for another, lobbied hard to deny the Palestinians full membership of UNESCO. But they lost, ignominiously, in the end when 107 member states of UNESCO, out of a total 173, voted for the Palestinians. US and Israel got the support of just 12, with 54 abstaining. US immediately threatened to withhold 80 million dollars in assistance to UNESCO’s budget as ‘punishment’ for siding with the Palestinians. That’s exactly how bullies behave when cornered.

The victory may-as many have pointed out-only have symbolic significance but is sweet enough to remind the Palestinians that their legitimate cause is gaining traction and recognition from the world-from that part of the world which isn’t blinded by prejudices and innate hatred of the Arabs and Muslims. It is yet another unmistakable sign of changing winds in relation to the Arabs, especially for the cause of democracy underlying the Arab Spring.

October 24 marked the 66th birthday of UN. It was also the day when results of Tunisia’s first democratic elections became known. These two may look totally disparate developments but there couldn’t be a more revealing study in contrast between failure and success than these two stories.

UN was founded on the rubble of WWII by its victors amid hope that the world would hone a fool-proof mechanism to save its future generations from the scourge of war. It was intended to become the premier vehicle in the world for peace- keeping.

But UN has been a dismal failure on that front, largely because its founders turned against its pristine principles, abused their prerogative and abrasively morphed it into a hand-maiden of their selfish interest. The then Soviet Union skirted it when it deemed it fit to invade and occupy Afghanistan. US, under George W. Bush, blatantly bypassed it and brushed it aside with disdain, if not contempt, in its rush to invade Iraq.

However, little Tunisia, with its erstwhile reputation for being the most Francophone of former French colonies, and a population of just 10 million, has done wonders in blazing a trail of emancipation from tyranny. The Tunisian uprising of ordinary people against a well-entrenched autocrat like Zeinel Abedein bin Ali, not only forced him to flee the land he’d lorded over for nearly a quarter century, but it also lent a paradigm to oppressed Arab masses from Morocco to Yemen. So cataclysmic was the fallout from the Tunisian revolt that Egypt, the most populous of Arab states and traditionally the kernel of any Arab movement for change, was forced to emulate the Tunisian example.

But while Egyptian people’s revolt against tyranny is still lurching between hope and diffidence because of the foot-dragging of its power-addicted military establishment, Tunisia has successfully moved on to the next decisive stage of empowering the very same people who had triggered the movement for change in its fortunes.

The general election of October 23 has already carved out several milestones in a big leap forward, milestones that should lead the way for all the Arabs still struggling for meaningful change in their entity.

The first milestone is the ambience of peace and tranquility in which the polls were conducted. So smooth and organized was their conduct that a watchful and keen observer like President Obama couldn’t hold back his compliments. The European Union, which had sent a team of observers to watch over the electioneering and polling, also gave the Tunisians a clean chit for their first venture into popular democracy.

The second milestone is the enthusiasm of the Tunisian electors that saw a more than 90 percent turnout of people eligible to vote. This puts to shame many an established western democracies where even a 50 percent turnout is deemed encouraging and heart-warming.

The third milestone is the potential for a truly participatory democratic process triggered by this genuinely free and maturely democratic election that has won kudos even from those whose interest in democracy taking hold among the Arabs is, at best, skin-deep.

11,000 candidates were in the field for 217 seats of what would be a constituent assembly to frame a permanent constitution for a free and democratic Tunisia. Thousands in this ‘crowd’ ran as independent candidates without any party affiliation. And yet there were no less than 80 political parties and factions that dove into the electoral process with élan to show their flag as is the wont in established democracies.

The outcome of Tunisia’s novel experiment with free elections isn’t surprising to those who have been keeping tabs on that country and its roller-coaster ride to democracy.

Al Nahda, the moderate Islamic party that had been sent into political wilderness by Tunisia’s disgraced tyrant, has emerged as the largest party in the assembly, with more than 40 percent of its seats. It has won 90 seats to emerge as the largest party in the Assembly and a front-runner to form Tunisia’s first genuinely elected and democratic government. Al Nahda’s immaculate savvy at the polls is, indeed, a sterling evidence of its remarkable organizing skills and the inspiring leadership of its founder, Rachid El Ghannouchi.

My familiarity with Al Nahda (Renaissance) and Ghannouchi goes back to the priod, 1988-1991, when I was Pakistan’s Ambassador to Algeria and Gannouchi was living in forced exile in Algeria’s capital, Algiers. Zeinal Abidein bin Ali, had forced Gannouchi to leave Tunisia after his moderate and peace-oriented party had been declared ‘illegal’ and arrogantly disbanded by the power-drunk dictator.

It was my close friend and founder of Algeria’s own moderate political movement-the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)-Abbasi Madan, who introduced me to Ghannouchi. The two of them shared laudable personal traits of moderation and non-violence in politics. Soft-spoken and unassuming, both exuded rare scholarly mettle. They had drunk deep at the font of Islamic history and proudly acknowledged their debt of scholarly gratitude to the internationally-renowned and respected Pakistani religious thinker and scholar, Maulana Abul Aala Maudoodi. They would often quote from Maudoodi’s books (all of them having been translated into Arabic) in order to make a point and buttress their line of thinking and argument.

I used to tease them that their Maudoodi -orientation wouldn’t endear them to Pakistan’s ‘enlightened’ intelligentsia, which had somehow regressed into believing that Maudoodi-bashing was an essential attribute and token of ‘modernism’ in religious thought.

Ghannouchi and Madani were, of course, not daunted by my caution or caveat; they didn’t bother much about what others might think or say about their interpretation of what the west parodied as ‘political Islam.’ They were convinced, like their spiritual mentor, that political power was a pre-requisite to weld a dynamic and progressive Muslim society dedicated to Islam’s pristine message of universal peace and peaceful co-existence with all. Their philosophy seemed-at least to me-closest to the Sufi perception and practice of Solh-e-Kul (peace with all).

Abbasi Madani’s entirely peaceful and democratic movement in Algeria was, of course, brutally suppressed and robbed of its legitimate chance to galvanize the Algerian society the way the Turks have done, years after him. The Algerian military junta, backed to the hilt by the Americans and the Europeans-with France carrying the flag-conspired with western neo-imperialism to deprive their people of the blessings of moderate Islamic thought underpinning the society’s transition to modern and progressive democracy.

But Ghannouchi, belatedly, has the chance now to prove that his blueprint of a moderate, progressive and peace-oriented Islamic polity firmly wedded to Islam’s universal commitment of ‘peace-with-all’ is workable in the 21st century. I just saw his British-educated, lawyer-daughter telling Al Jazeera Television that her party was irrevocably wedded to the principle of  an open, free-of-coercion Islamic society in which all personal and collective freedoms-rights of speech, writing and belief-are guaranteed and whose motto is peaceful co-existence at home and abroad. She cited Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a role model and template for Tunisia and the larger Arab world.

This reminded me of what both Madani and Ghannouchi asserted before me, time and again, in reference to their model-society. They insisted that they found no attraction at all in either the Iranian paradigm of clergy-controlled theocracy or Pakistan’s model of chaotic Pandora’s Box. Ghannouchi now has the chance of his life to prove that he meant what he said. Tunisians have handed him that opportunity in an open and fair election.

In the Arab context, Tunisia has the chance to reassure an increasingly skeptical world-especially the west-that it’s not going to be consumed by the likes of next-door Libya’s chaotic and bloody tryst with destiny. The mayhem surrounding Qaddafi’s brutal curtain-call has sent shudders around the world. This doesn’t augur well at all for Libya’s transition to orderly and tranquil democracy from the shadows of Qaddafi’s ruthless autocracy.

The stark differences between the Tunisian and Libyan situations offer an interesting study in contrast.

Tunisia’s stride to democracy is a fully home-grown development. The Tunisian people took no cue from anyone in the outside world to get rid of their long-holding tyrant. And once they had done that, they invited no intervention from any quarters in their internal affairs, or seek guidance from anyone as to what they should be doing and how they should do it.

The result of this entirely indigenous effort is in view today in crystal clarity. Tunisia is firm-footed in its march to a new era of people’s democracy. The maturity of its first experiment with elections has impressed all-and-sundry and gives assurance to all that there’s little or no reason to doubt that it will arrive where its people want to reach without any detour or misleading short-cut.

In contrast, the Libyans relied heavily on outside forces to literally envelop their struggle against Qaddafi’s tyranny. The west, for its own selfish and nefarious interests in Libya, came to their help in order to make the Libyans beholden to their dictates and designs.

There can be no two-opinions that western interference has derailed the Libya people’s struggle for emancipation from autocracy and diverted it into undesirable directions. Libyans are nowhere being as united and resolute as the Tunisians are. Libya is, still, a house divided and still torn into factionalism. Western patronage has completely moulded the interim leadership in its direction and there’s every danger of further factionalism and parochialism ruling the roost in a post-Qaddafi Libya. Of course the people of Libya, who sacrificed so much to put an end to Qaddafi’s nightmare, are in imminent danger of passing under another set of rulers who may not be as attuned to their goals and aspirations as to delivering on the agenda dictated by their new-found western ‘friends.’

The new leaders of Libya would be doing a great service to their countrymen-and to themselves, too-if they were to gravitate more towards Tunisia, next door, and less and less toward self-serving western advisers and mentors who may have oil barons and corporate robbers hiding under their cloaks.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 November 2011 on page no. 26

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