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The Tunisian model

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Tunisia’s was the first and in some ways the easiest of the “Arab Spring” revolts. President Zine el Abidine ben Ali fled his country after only a month of demonstrations. Although security forces killed dozens of protesters during that chaotic period, the country nevertheless regrouped quickly, put an interim system in place and began to plan for the future. In that sense, Tunisia offered a relatively appealing model for subsequent revolts in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Syria — not all of which have come off quite so smoothly.

Now will Tunisia offer a model for what to do next? Voters turned out in high numbers on Sunday to choose an assembly to draw up a new constitution. It was the first post-revolt election in the Arab world since the Arab Spring began, and voters were for the most part orderly and enthusiastic, according to news reports. Preliminary indications are that the big winner was the moderate Islamic party Nahda, which has committed itself to working within the rules of a pluralistic, democratic society.

If it can really do that, great — and not just for Tunisia. Powerful tensions exist between Islamists and secularists in most of the countries that have faced revolts this year. In Libya, for instance, interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil worried many of his compatriots when he said Sunday that he hoped his country would become an “Islamic state” in which polygamy would not be illegal but charging interest would. In Egypt, the not-terribly-moderate Muslim Brotherhood is likely to outperform others in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

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If elections are to be the future of the region — and that is by no means settled — the world will have to acknowledge the powerful appeal of Islamist parties and begin to figure out whether and under what circumstances such parties can exist comfortably in a democracy. There’s some precedent for this in Turkey, where the Islamist party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed — despite secularists’ fears — to mix a conservative, religious message with a modern, development-oriented approach that works within the electoral system.

We hope such a model can succeed. It’s less important whether a nation’s leaders are religious or secular than whether the country is stable, guarantees individual rights, transfers power peacefully, protects minorities and tolerates dissent.

That is separate, of course, from whether an Islamic government will share U.S. interests. Would an Islamic government in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya distance itself from the West or grow increasingly anti-Israel? Would that in turn persuade some Americans to reduce aid or limit involvement at a moment when these countries need help building democratic institutions? All that is certain is that democracy, to which the U.S. has long pledged its support, is messy and doesn’t always bring the hoped-for results. But it’s the best system around.


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