Public Commentary / 17 March 2014

Tunisia’s model for bridging political and social divides

BARCELONA, SPAIN; AND WASHINGTON — After more than two years of negotiations, a new constitution came into force in Tunisia last month. It was hailed by Islamists and liberals alike as a paradigm of compromise. And despite various political crises, a stagnant economy, and latent threats of violence, Tunisia stands out as the only Arab Spring country seemingly on its way to a successful transition toward democracy.

The country’s achievements are demonstrating that, as in the case of South Africa 20 years earlier, leaders of transition countries must – sooner or later – make inclusiveness the organizing principle on which to ground political, economic, and social policies if they hope to consolidate peace and advance democracy. 

When any country enters a transition out of war or dictatorship, its citizens are naturally full of hope and high expectations that their leaders, economies, and societies will change. Yet too few transitions deliver as advertised. 

Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, alienated most of his fellow citizens – and was deposed in a protest-fueled military coup. Libya has struggled to maintain security amid tribal and ethnic divisions. New liberties in Myanmar (Burma) have spawned religious conflict. Nepal has struggled for years to write a new constitution amid bitter disputes. The track records of IraqAfghanistanNigeria, and Congo are similarly disappointing.

Part of the problem is that countries emerging from war or authoritarianism today are confronting problems that many of their predecessors did not. 

Ethnic, religious, geographical, clan, or ideological divisions often prevent the formation of stable regimes that are widely viewed as legitimate. Weak governments that cannot act capably and equitably encourage groups to fight for power on zero-sum terms. Conflict begets conflict, working in a vicious cycle that is hard to end. Economies suffer in the process, worsening the lives of the very people whose high hopes ignited transition in the first place.

Transitions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere, such as Ukraine, desperately need a guiding principle that can focus the efforts of a wide range of actors and help them prioritize among the numerous challenges they face. Many of these countries have fallen victim to the steep odds stacked against the inclusive approach – for one, getting inclusive-minded leaders into positions of power in the first place.

In new democracies forming in divided or sectarian-split societies, inclusive-minded candidates often have trouble competing with candidates who appeal to a specific demographic. In Egypt’s last presidential election runoff, the candidates with relatively more inclusive platforms and ideologies lost, leaving the race to two of the most polarizing candidates – Mr. Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, and Ahmed Shafik, an Egyptian Air Force commander who had served as prime minister under Hosni Mubarak.

A ‘rainbow nation’

But South Africa showed, and Tunisia may, too, that transitions can move forward when leaders of various factions accept the need for inclusiveness and compromise. Such an approach must take into account the needs of all segments of the population, while also building an inclusive national identity and equitable, robust institutions to be sustainable over the long haul. 

After apartheid, South Africa’s new democratic leaders began to use the famous moniker “rainbow nation.” It described the kind of demographic the country already had, but also the kind of society it aspired to become in the new era. The term signaled to white South Africans that they were important to the country’s future. It also provided a source of resilience when state institutions were slow to deliver results and passions were running especially high.

The Tunisian approach

When political and social leaders espouse an inclusive vision and back it up with action, their rhetoric and deeds resonate, with positive consequences for every aspect of a transition. 

In Tunisia’s case, the ruling Islamist Ennahda party turned over control of the government to a nonpartisan cabinet and conceded a number of delicate points in the Constitution – compromises that have proved critical to ensuring wide support for the democratic transition process.

Ennahda’s leaders acted this way because of a mixture of public pressure and enlightened self-interest. Facing anger at their own failings in power, and mindful of the ejection of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt, Ennahda’s leaders understood that compromise was essential to their own future political prospects. This action highlighted the fact that inclusiveness isn’t just a high-minded ideal; it is simply smart politics.

The only realistic path for a better future

Inclusive practices can have an effect not only on the tangible aspects of a transition – including political processes and economic reforms – but also on the rarely emphasized intangible aspects. They can reinforce political settlements, strengthen government, reduce the chance that violence will erupt, and build confidence and trust across a society.

An inclusive approach can also directly attack the most difficult challenges that countries with bad starting conditions have – namely the longstanding societal divisions, weak institutions, and regional conflicts that have hurt so many Arab countries over the past three years.

By setting an overarching vision and tone, inclusiveness can work as a connective tissue to help reduce the fault lines that plague transition countries while building up the trust and cohesion needed to get through a period marked by inevitable crises. Nelson Mandela got it. Tunisia is figuring it out. Inclusiveness cannot guarantee quick or perfect results, but it offers the only realistic pathway toward a better future.

Mark Freeman is executive director of the Institute for Integrated Transitions. Seth Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the managing editor of the Fragile States forum (

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