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Crossroads in Tunis

Current instability in North African nation is not unlike the situation during transitions which are held up as models

The Tunisian political landscape is heating up, thanks to the breakdown of a coalition between the Ennahda Movement and the democratic leftist parties, whose support enabled the Islamists to form a government. Unable to reach agreement on the make-up of a new cabinet, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has just resigned.

The spark for the present crisis was the murder of Chokri Belaid, a leftist politician who had been highly critical of the Islamists. A political assassination amid the convulsive Tunisian transition to democracy, and its growing instability, has raised a chorus of warnings in the West. The Arab Spring seems likely to succumb to an Islamist winter. But in spite of these events, we must not give up hope for Tunisian democracy.

Almost four decades ago, the democratic transitions in Greece, Portugal and Spain set off a mode of "transitology," which began in the academic world and, by the 1990s, had become a favorite activity of international organizations, governmental or not. In a climate warmed by dozens of democratization processes worldwide, an industry emerged that was especially agreeable to retired politicians, who were time and again invited to recount epic versions of their younger days -- when, with courage, generosity and a vision of the future, they dispelled the ghosts of history and forged a better future for their country. As a result, embellished versions of certain exemplary transitions (Spain, Poland, South Africa, Indonesia) have been laid down, based on the self-legitimizing narrative of the present democratic regimes in these countries.

The transformation process is still full of energy and the country remains a pioneer in the Arab world

The problem with these partial versions is that they tend to ignore uncomfortable aspects, such as violence and deaths. Thus, more recent processes of change are judged by yardsticks that do not reflect reality.

Tunisia began its process of political transformation with a revolt that was bloodily repressed (some 300 dead) and the collapse of authority. Nevertheless, it was immediately compared to consensual or peaceful transitions in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Its evolution in the last two years has been a good deal less bloody than the leaden years of the Spanish Transition just after Franco's death. While the Tunisian economy has not fully recovered from the post-revolution slump, it is slowly bouncing back. The political context is chaotic; the street violence menacing; the media panorama confused; and civil and human rights abuses are returning -- a situation not unlike that of other countries in similar times. Ennahda, the Islamist party that controls the government, has shown itself to be ambiguous not only in its commitment to democracy, but also inept in its handling of social consensus, civil liberties, security and the economy. Nor is this exceptional.

But Tunisian society has demonstrated its hard-earned capacity for the defense of pluralism. The liberal elites are attempting to set aside their differences and unite in a more credible opposition; the leftist parties in the government are distancing themselves from their majority partner, Ennahda; the secular middle class is once again mobilizing. It is not only the wealthy who oppose the Islamist hegemony. The country's largest labor union, the UGTT, which played a key role in the anti-colonial struggle and also in the 2011 revolution, has stood up to the Ennahda government and organized a coherent alternative. In some of the poor regions of the interior, such as Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the revolution, the lower classes have risen against the government, its militias and the security forces.

Measured against the background of idealized previous transitions and the romanticized cliché of the so-called Jasmine Revolution, the Tunisians can hardly help but disappoint us. But, two years after its beginning, the transformation process is still full of energy. Stability will not return until a new governing consensus settles in. For the moment, the country is a pioneer in the Arab world, and Tunisian society is showing that its thirst for liberty is unquenched.

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