February 9th, 2014
01:01 AM ET

Local leadership key in Arab world

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By Global Public Square staff

It's popular these days to say the Arab Spring has gone badly awry. It's a bit early to make these judgments – think of what America looked like in 1779, three years after its revolution – but if you were to compile a mid-term report, Syria would get a failing grade, Egypt's revolution has faltered badly, Libya is a mess. But there is one spark of hope for the revolutions of the Middle East, and it's a country that could be a model for all the others: Tunisia, which was the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

What has Tunisia done right?

Well, let's start with history. Tunisia has been quite different from Egypt and its neighbors for centuries. It was the first Arab state to develop a modern constitution, all the way back in 1861. Over time, Tunisia has developed stronger civic institutions than its Arab neighbors, including a human rights league that was founded nearly four decades ago. About a fifth of the government's budget has been allocated to education. And the demographics are largely homogenous: while Syria and Iraq are divided along sectarian lines – Shia or Sunni – some 98 percent of Tunisians are Sunni Muslims.

But perhaps more important than all of these historic differences are the choices that modern Tunisians have made.

Tunisia's military has stayed out of active politics. Contrast that with Egypt, where the military controls anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent of the economy and business. Four of Egypt's last five presidents came from the military. And the one that didn't – Mohammed Morsy – was toppled by the military.

Another factor behind Tunisia's relative success is the foresight of its civilian leaders.

Three years ago, Tunisia had a similar trajectory to Egypt. Both nations voted for Islamist leaders whose movements had either been suppressed, banned, or exiled. Look at what happened next. In Egypt, when a fresh spate of protests began, President Morsy battened down the hatches and refused to reach out to his detractors. He was removed by force. On the other hand, in Tunisia, the coalition government actually stepped aside of its own accord, handing power to a temporary government. Now that is how democracy is supposed to work – by making painful compromises.

In Cairo, people didn't make those concessions. Egypt's Islamists wanted to push through a constitution that would be unacceptable to liberals, and then to rule by presidential decree. Tunisia's new constitution – which was approved overwhelmingly by a majority of Islamists – is being hailed as the most progressive constitution in the Arab world, with equal rights for women and minorities.

Last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, with top leaders from the Arab world, Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi explained why his party, the Islamist party, willingly stepped down from government last year in Tunisia. "We had two choices," he said. "Either we stay in power and we lose democracy ... or we gain democracy and give up power." He chose the latter. It was a selfless choice, but also a savvy one: It wouldn’t be surprising if he and his party are back in power later this year.

The Tunisian model is not flawless, but it has powerful lessons for the rest of the Arab world. This is a country that has learned the most difficult lesson of democracy: how to be inclusive and how to compromise. It has learned this lesson without the West, without aid money, without compromising on its religious ideas (remember, the new constitution firmly enshrines Islam, but alongside women's and minority’s rights.) So before we start blaming Washington or the West for not doing enough in the Arab world, let's learn from Tunisia that local leadership is the key – and that right now there is little of it in the Arab world.

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Does local leadership mean that the CIA should stop meddling?

    February 9, 2014 at 1:31 am |
    • Only The Shadow Knows

      Not a chance matslats! Starting off with a big "shadow government" or big "shadow banking" system is usually better for immediate returns. But when ya can't do that ya start off small and work your way bigger.

      February 9, 2014 at 7:13 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      It should matslats, bu that's never going to happen in our lifetime! The C.I.A. is undoubtedly the biggest terrorist organization the world has ever known and will continue it's obscene activities around the world long after we're dead and gone!

      February 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm |
    • Silverado

      Arab world needs local leadership. Leadership by definition includes taking responsibility for your own actions. Externalizing blame is not a sign of leadership, it is rather a sign of complete lack of leadership. CIA did not ask Muslim Brotherhood to kill Coptic Christians – Muslim Brotherhood did that on their own. CIA did not ask Muslim Brotherhood to throw kids off rooftops - Muslim Brotherhood did it by themselves. Blaming your own failures on CIA does not show leadership - It just reveals your moral bankruptcy.

      February 10, 2014 at 4:02 pm |
      • J Ray

        Good for you for calling them on their attempt to lay blame at anyone's feet but their own. They will continue to blame Israel, the US, the West and Christianity for every horrible thing they do to themselves however. But it's good to speak out against it.

        February 12, 2014 at 11:40 pm |
    • xyz

      Alas!! We always need scapegoats. Only the strong takes blames for failures upon their own shoulders.

      February 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm |
  2. JAL

    Local leadership is important. There always seems to be this: "I wasn't born yesterday" mentality. That's fair. Humility or being humiliated always breaks down barriers. As an indicator, Bears and Bulls react differently to being humiliated.

    February 9, 2014 at 8:26 am |
  3. Raf in Atlanta

    So how does that help the local citizens or us as interested observers? history and culture are already fixed and good local leadership is only defined after the fact, by the outcome.

    February 9, 2014 at 9:53 am |
  4. GozieBoy

    Fascinating to hear Zakaria today esposuing the huge (and unique) success of Tunisia, its history and especially in coming through the "Arab Spring" and its aftermath. Tunisia's key to success? It is 98% Sunni. The LACK of diversity has provided the stable foundation for its success. Egypt, Libya and Syria have too much diversity, and thus are hopelessly trapped in endless internal disagreement and strife. *** A LESSON FOR THE USA *** Thank you for making this point so eloquently, Fareed!

    February 9, 2014 at 1:35 pm |
    • JASC92

      in old world, nations have large defined native ethnic groups. while in the Americas (from Canada to chile) there are all Immigrant nations, where the immigrant abandons his or her ethnic group

      February 9, 2014 at 8:21 pm |
    • gorgias

      Libya has the same ethnic/religious configuration as Tunisia and failed to build a democracy out of the chaos.
      Also Tunisia is divided into 50% secular modernists, fascinated by the French model and hoping for similar success as the Occident, and 50% conservatives isalmists, believing religion must have a more important role in the public life to preserve morals and traditions. Sometimes the confrontations of those two components were violent but the national dialogue organized by the civil society succeeded to bring some peace and concessions from both sides.

      February 9, 2014 at 10:35 pm |
  5. Joseph McCarthy

    As anyone with half a brain knows, the so-called "Arab Spring" is nothing but a dismal failure. Virtually all of these countries remain in the hands of Muslim aristocrats or elitists who continue living in the lap of luxury while carrying out orders from Washington D.C.!

    February 9, 2014 at 2:21 pm |
  6. K from Tunisia

    Interesting article. I do live in Tunisia and I can say that it was a much better place before the arab spring. We today live at an olive tree era and pretend to be at the lexus. Arab spring was only a result of globalization. How can you educate people to internet gsm's and today's market, expect them to make a living of 200€ a month, then put their anguish on military or sunni shiia or cia conspiracies.. Do we have a choice ? No! There has to be a producer and a consumer..

    February 10, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
  7. Kirollos

    Please note that the military did not topple the president in Egypt (Morsi), rather it was the organization of well over 20 million protesters (some estimates put the number as high as 30 million, which is exponentially more than the number that came out against Mubarak). The military only stepped in when it saw that (as you said) Morsi was not going to bend and that he had begun to order thugs to get in the street and kill non brotherhood members! The military has always protected Egypt and its citizens and plays a role in society that no military in the world plays domestically. Morsi was removed by the people, not the military, it was NOT a coup. The military acted on behalf of the people. Thank you!

    February 10, 2014 at 2:02 pm |
    • R. Wilson Reagan

      What the Egyptians need to do now is to set up a Socialist state comparable to that in Nassar's time. Anwar Sadat changed Egypt into a Capitalist state beginning in 1972 and created a new elite there who have grown exponentially rich while impoverishing the middle class over the years and now this needs to be reversed.

      February 10, 2014 at 3:26 pm |
    • JP

      I agree that Egypt military did not remove Morsi but by million of Egypt people. Morsi just a Muslim Brotherhood president but not serving other groups within Egypt. I also agree that Egyptians saw their dreams stolen away by religious fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood.

      February 12, 2014 at 2:58 pm |
  8. Silverado

    This is a very good article. The Arab world desperately needs local leadership to transform themselves and their economies and enter the modern era. However, Arab countries like Egypt saw their dreams stolen away by religious fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood.

    February 10, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
    • Greg

      Most of all, Silverado, these countries need to be free of both British and American domination. In other words, de-americanization is the true key to the progress in the Middle East but won't happen as long as the Muslim Elitists remain in power for their own self interests!

      February 10, 2014 at 7:53 pm |
  9. Andrey

    Tunisia was not important even for al-Qaeda Spring so it was not targeted as much as all the other ME countries were. That is the whole secret there was about it! Do not have resources, do not have military force, do not have strategic location for a pipeline, do not have a border with Israel, do not talk about replacing dollar with some "golden drachma" in the oil trade: and you will do reasonably well when the region is in a turmoil ...

    February 11, 2014 at 11:22 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Perhaps! But it also has to do with the degree of "europeanisation" of Tunisia. French colonial rule ended in 1956, and Tunisia was led for three decades by Habib Bourguiba, who advanced secular ideas. These included emancipation for women – women's rights in Tunisia are among the most advanced in the Arab world – the abolition of polygamy and compulsory free education. Today many Tunisians still have good relationship with France.

      February 11, 2014 at 11:38 am |
  10. tensai13

    This is sheer nonsense from beginning to end.

    February 13, 2014 at 6:41 pm |
  11. tensai13

    Comments are being actively censored – be warned!

    February 13, 2014 at 6:44 pm |
  12. Salagar

    Well, it looks like a coup's just taken place in Libya. A general (still trying to find out which one) has stopped Congress and declared it illegitimate. Possibly emboldened by what's happened in Cairo and the Russian endorsement of general al-Sisi. So I guess, Tunisia isn't going to be the model here. At least not for now.

    February 14, 2014 at 5:12 am |
  13. Rick McDaniel

    That would be far more optimistic, than the facts would indicate to be true.

    February 14, 2014 at 11:08 am |
  14. Peggy

    You have no idea what you are talking about! Tunisia is insignificant in world affairs!

    February 14, 2014 at 3:22 pm |

    Local leadership key in Arab world........................

    Why......the local warlords are and have always been in charge of their area.....duh that´s the problem we´re having with the Afgani .......WARLORDS.

    February 17, 2014 at 7:07 am |

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