Tunisia: Arab Exception?

Back in 2015, on the morning of October 9th, I woke up to the news that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet had won the Nobel Peace Prize. In a time when terrorism, political bickering and popular discontent were threatening the legacy of the Tunisian revolution, the Quartet stepped in and engineered a nationwide dialogue. It worked. Tunisia is far from perfect today. But it has duly earned its place in history as the first secular Arab democracy. That day around Cambridge, I carried the news with pride.

The next morning, I skimmed the headlines. It only took 24 hours for the news cycle to move on to something else. A bloody bombing killed at least 86 people in Turkey. Russian MiGs were still targeting Syrian rebels. Israeli soldiers killed 6 Palestinians in Gaza. The leader of Hamas praised the stabbing of Israelis by a Palestinian.

Spoiler alert, ladies and gentlemen. The Middle East is a shit show.

I understand. In global consciousness, our region of the world is associated with blood and violence. There’s no denying it is very much owning up to that reputation. But giving such little importance to that year’s Nobel Peace Prize was a grave disservice to history. Tunisian activists’ achievements hold great significance to us Arab millennials. Our generation was almost certain things could not get any better. In 2011, Tunisia proved us wrong.

It was a classic tale of human suffering. Humiliated, beaten by the police and prevented from making a living, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire. After he succumbed to his burns, his countrymen decided that enough was enough. Armed with their chants and smartphones, they occupied their country’s streets. Next thing you know, an Arab dictator chickens out, leaving everything behind. It was unheard of until then.

Other Arab countries picked up on that freedom frenzy, rather unsuccessfully. Egypt is an even worse military dictatorship. Syria is in the midst of a civil war. Libya barely fits the description of a state. Word on the street is that this Arab Spring thing did not work so well.

Not the case in Tunisia.

Given its exceptional ability to establish a secular constitution, guarantee gender equality, implement representative government and protect freedom of conscience, Tunisia is spoken of as the Arab exception. But I can’t accept that. I reject the premise that Tunisia can’t be the norm. It has to be. If democratization is working over there, then the rest of us Arabs have no excuse whatsoever. Every now and then, I would attend a talk or a conference where a self-proclaimed Middle East expert would use the expression “so-called Arab Spring.” Fumes would almost come out of my ears. The peaceful toppling of ruthless despots is my generation’s crowning achievement. You can’t take this away from us. At the end of the day, success stories like Tunisia are all we have. It is what sustains our hopes.

The world has in myriad ways tried to “fix” the Arab world and failed. You cannot bomb your way to our hearts and minds. You cannot pick and choose allies in the region based on what’s most convenient to you. You cannot patronize a whole culture by claiming that it is not ready for democracy. But you can support the aspirations of Arab democrats. Just like the Nobel Prize committee did in 2015. And if you can’t, it’s fine. Just get out of the way. We’ll figure it out eventually.

Right, Tunisia?

by Zouhair Mazouz  (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

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