A vote for democracy.

Photographer: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Arab Spring Lives On in Tunisia Vote

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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The American diplomat Edward Djerejian once famously remarked that if Islamists were democratically elected to office, the result might be “one man, one vote, one time.” Preliminary results from Tunisia's second democratic election show that this concern was unwarranted, at least in Tunisia. The Islamic democrats of Ennahda, who won a plurality in Tunisia's first democratic vote in 2011, appear to have finished second to the secular alternative, Nidaa Tounes. Far from clinging to power, Ennahda conceded defeat even before the results were final. “We have accepted this result, and congratulate the winner Nidaa Tounes,” a party official told Reuters.

Ennahda’s electoral defeat is a victory for democracy -- and in the end, it may actually be a victory for Ennahda too. Consider the comparison to Egypt, the poster child for how the election of Islamic democrats can go horribly wrong. After the Arab Spring and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood took office in Egypt, only to be ousted by a two-stage coup perpetrated by the Egyptian constitutional court, which invalidated legislative elections, and the Egyptian army, which arrested elected president Mohamed Mursi and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood activists. The return of dictatorship destroyed democracy in Egypt, probably for a generation. Just yesterday, Egypt's newspapers “voluntarily” declared they would be limiting criticism of the government.

In Tunisia, the Islamic democrats are giving up their legislative plurality peacefully -- without the need for a coup. That means Ennahda will be able to continue to participate in politics, whether as the loyal opposition or, as its members would no doubt prefer, as part of a national unity coalition with the secularist Nidaa. Either way, democratic institutions should continue to function.

The lesson for Egypt is powerful and clear. If secularists who didn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood had organized themselves, waited for elections and voted the Brotherhood out of office, democracy in Egypt could have been preserved. Instead, the secularists went to the streets and essentially invited the army to step in and do the dirty work of regime transition for them. Only too happy to oblige, the Egyptian army returned the country to the status quote ante. General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is a younger, more popular Mubarak.

The same will not be true of Nidaa leader Beji Caid Essebsi. For one thing, Essebsi is 87. He will not become the long-term dictator of Tunisia, for the simple reason that he's too old for the job. For another, Essebsi’s party has now been elected democratically. The party therefore wouldn't gain appreciably from suppressing Ennahda -- because he knows that Ennahda is prepared to accept the electoral results. This raises the probability of successful democratic governance.

Presidential elections now loom. Ennahda initially promised it wouldn't field a presidential candidate, preferring the chance to lead a parliamentary coalition. Now there will be pressure within Ennahda to run a candidate, or at least to back one of the already announced contenders. Essebsi could decide strategically to avoid this possibility by agreeing to a national unity government. If he does so, Ennahda will support him implicitly or explicitly, and his election will be assured. Tunisia's political culture has long displayed a predilection for consensus. If Essebsi wants to be the consensus candidate, his choice is clear.

Yet having won the election, Essebsi’s Nidaa is in a position of strength. Many of his followers are staunch secularists who will not want to bring Ennahda into the political fold. They will argue, with some plausibility, that Ennahda cannot win a presidential vote any more than it could win legislative elections. According to this view, Essebsi can become president and his party can lead a parliamentary government at the same time.

So long as an Essebsi government -- with or without Ennahda -- respects democratic rights and makes no attempt to suppress dissent, an undivided government might actually be a good thing for Tunisia's democratic future. Data compiled by the scholar Cindy Skach suggests that in semi-presidential systems like the one created by the chief and constitution, divided government correlates with democratic failure. It’s especially hard to distinguish cause from effect in comparative politics. But regardless of whether divided government hurts democratization or simply reflects conditions that make democratization difficult, it may well be that Tunisia would be better served by unified government.

In the medium to long term, Tunisia faces a real danger from the surprisingly large numbers of young Salafis who reportedly have gone to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and who may ultimately return home and threaten the safety of the government. The existence of this threat could be used by Essebsi as an excuse to exclude Ennahda, which was initially soft on Salafism before eventually cracking down.

But if Essebsi is wise, he will see the Salafi threat as a reason to keep Ennahda within a national unity government. Islamists are much better positioned ideologically to crack down on radical Islam than secularists like Essebsi. What Tunisia needs is a consensus against terrorism and radicalism -- and in favor of democratic institutions. With both, the small country may be able to continue as a beacon of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net