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Historic achievement

Loay Mudhoon / bkDecember 23, 2014

The election of political veteran Essebsi as Tunisia's first ever democratic president is a vital milestone on the way to the establishment of a true Arab democracy, says DW's Loay Mudhoon.

Tunisian flag and carpets
Image: DW/K. Mabrouka

The election of Beji Caid Essebsi as the first democratically elected president in Tunisia's history is an historic achievement - not only for the North African country, but also for all Arab nations currently in transition.

This successful and surprisingly peaceful election marks the end of a difficult democratic transition in the motherland of the Arab Spring revolts.

At the same time, it confirms the pioneering role that Tunisia has automatically played in a region scarred by post-revolutionary chaos, the collapse of states and the reform blockades set up by the incapable and authoritarian governing elites.

Who thought Tunisia would have it so hard?

The transition from the long-term dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to a democratic future was not supposed to be so difficult. Of all the post-revolutionary Arab states, Tunisia had the best conditions for making a successful journey to democracy and the rule of law.

The country has a relatively strong civil society, a confident women's movement, good domestic negotiating bodies, like the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), a relatively good education system and a well-functioning administration. On top of that, the military has rarely acted as a political body.

In addition, after the departure of Ben Ali in 2011 the transition began promisingly. Following the first democratic elections for the assembly that would formulate the new constitution in October 2011, the victors agreed surprisingly quickly to a coalition government and an even distribution of the most important offices.

Egypt, a scary model

Loay Mudhoon
Loay Mudhoon, Arab world analyst for DWImage: DW

But starting in October 2012, the transformation process began to stagnate. Tunisians waited in vain for the promised constitution. Social and political polarization worsened, particularly after the murder of opposition politician Chokri Belaid.

But dramatic events in Egypt showed Tunisia's post-revolutionary elites where extreme polarization and ideological turf battles would lead. In July 2013, following days of mass protests, the Egyptian military toppled the democratically elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and summarily banned his Muslim Brotherhood - the parent organization of political Islam.

That was followed by an almost complete restoration of the old Mubarak regime. Since then, the country has been regularly shaken by terrorist attacks. Economic and social crises have worsened and are threatening to make the country ungovernable.

Learning from the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood

Of course, one couldn't expect the heavy legacy of dictatorship to be overcome without fierce social confrontation. But the way in which Tunisians have negotiated a new understanding of the state and a freely-negotiated social model has been decisive.

The Islamist Ennahda movement learned from the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, overwhelmed and out of touch with reality as they were, and chose a true national dialogue. They acted pragmatically in the constitutional process and decided against including Islamist references in the constitution.

That meant that all political forces could agree on what is, in effect, the most progressive constitution in the Middle East, one which enshrines a balance between secular and religious citizens.

Now Essebsi must act

Now President-elect Essebsi and his secular-nationalist Nida Tounes party face major challenges. The country desperately needs to stabilize the security situation and implement far-reaching reforms in the security sector, as well as boost the economy which has been on its knees since the fall of Ben Ali nearly four years ago.

In order to achieve this, Essebsi, who relied on the networks of the old regime in his election campaign, must effectively include the more pragmatic and solution-oriented Islamists in his program, particularly in his efforts to battle Tunisia's ticking time bomb: high unemployment.

Otherwise, there is serious danger that Tunisia's youth will lose faith in the aims and achievements of the revolution - and distance themselves from this new, hard-fought social order.