Today marks the first anniversary of the self-immolation of a young street seller in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. How is Tunisia doing one year on?

According to Jean Daniel, the French commentator and founder of Novel Observateur, in his “Islamism’s New Clothes” article in the December 22, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books, the answer is: very badly. In his view, the recent elections in Tunisia amount to a “counter-revolution.” It would appear from what he says that the elections could only count as a revolution if they had followed the script of a French model of 1905 laïcité –the most religiously “unfriendly” form of secularism of any West European democracy. Such a model, in a more extreme form, was imposed by the state in the authoritarian secularism under Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia without free elections from Independence in 1956 until the Arab Spring.

Having witnessed, and written about, over fifteen efforts at democratic transitions and having visited Tunisia three times since the start of the Arab Spring, I would argue the opposite: A much more appropriate description of the political situation in Tunisia is to call it the Arab Spring’s first completed democratic transition.

Fifteen years ago my colleague Juan Linz and I, in our book  Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post-Communist Europe, spelled out four necessary requirements for a successful democratic transition. First, sufficient agreement has to be reached about political procedures to produce an elected government. Second, a government has to come to power as the direct result of a free and popular vote. Third, this government de facto has to have the authority to generate new policies. Fourth, the executive, legislative, and judicial power generated by the new democracy must not have to share power with other bodies de jure (e.g. the military, or a religious power). Tunisia is within days of actually meeting all four of these requirements. Egypt has not met even one.

How has this been achieved in Tunisia? There is a deep back-story involved here which is only now being publicly documented and which I will spell out in much greater detail in an April 2012 article in the Journal of Democracy. However, the essence of the story is the gradual construction of a democratic and relatively consensual opposition, involving both secularists and a religiously-based, Muslim party, Ennahda, a construction that began eight years before the fall of Ben Ali. A strikingly similar process of political rapprochement and commitment to non-violence and democracy began in Chile in the 1980s, involving the secular Socialist Party and the religiously-based Christian Democratic Party, roughly eight years before they defeated Pinochet in an election and formed a successful ruling coalition.

In June 2003, representatives of four of the five largest political parties with the greatest number of seats in Tunisia’s current Constituent Assembly, met in France to launch a “Call from Tunis” (Appel de Tunis). The participants agreed that any future, elected government would be “founded on the sovereignty of the people as the sole source of legitimacy” and be “religiously neutral.”  In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in their draft program of 2007 had asserted that sharia should be the main source of law (and it is probable that sharia will remain so in Egypt’s future constitution). Another principle agreed on in the “Call from Tunis” concerned gender equality. One of the accomplishments of Bourguiba was the creation of the Arab world’s most egalitarian family code which, among many other things, granted the right of women to initiate a divorce, to receive compulsory child support, and to have access to family planning, including abortion. In 2008, these four political parties from Tunisia met again, and re-affirmed and even deepened their commitment to the principles of the “Call from Tunis.”

Within days after Ben Ali was overthrown, the interim government created a new organization to put in order the procedures for a rapid presidential election. Protests against the exclusion of all but technical, legal advisors from the organization led to a new body representing all the political parties and civil society, the “High Commission for the Fulfillment of Revolutionary Goals, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition,” generally called after its chairman, Ben Achour.  This Commission is one of the most successful and consensual organizations in the history of crafting a democratic transition. Nothing remotely like it has yet been created in Egypt, where the military, via the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF), until very recently has structured all significant political dialogue via over 150 unilaterally issued communiqués.

In November of this year, I talked at length with Ben Achour, with members of the political parties in the Commission, and with leaders of civil society organizations, as well as with two of the expert (but non-voting) legal advisors to Ben Achour’s staff. I was also given the key documents the commission had voted upon. Here are the main decisions:

  1.  Though many changes were considered to be important for improving Tunisia, it was agreed to concentrate only on decisions that were indispensible for creating a democratic government to make these changes.
  2.  It was decided that the first election to be held would be to create a Constituent Assembly, whose task would be to produce a new Constitution.
  3.  It was agreed that the Constituent Assembly would appoint a Government, which would thus be based on the legitimacy of elections and also be responsible to the Constituent Assembly.
  4.  It was agreed that the electoral system would be one of proportional representation, with every other name on the ballot being a woman. By all accounts the first party to accept this gender parity provision was the Muslim-inspired Ennahda.
  5. To ensure that all the contesting parties have confidence in the fairness of the electoral results it was decided to create Tunisia’s first ever independent electoral commission, and to invite many international electoral observers and give them extensive monitoring prerogatives.  In sharp contrast, in Egypt, SCAF initially unilaterally denied the entry of international observers, on the grounds that their presence in the country would amount to a violation of Egypt’s sovereignty.  Eventually, SCAF allowed into the country some election “followers,” whose number and prerogatives were substantially less than in Tunisia.
  6. On the issue of what to do with Ben Ali’s official political party, the Assembly decided to ban the party and some of its most important leaders from being candidates in the first election. However, in order not to exclude a large group of citizens from participating in the first free elections, the Assembly declared that former Ben Ali party members and/or supporters were free to form new parties.

On April 11, 2011, approximately 155 members of the Ben Achour Commission voted on this package of measures to create a democratic transition. The vote count was the following: two walk outs, two abstentions and 150 in favor of the package. The negotiations and vote together intensified feelings of solidarity.

Democracy is always only “government pro tem” and always has some dangers that must be guarded against by democratic rules, a non-majoritarian constitution that protects minority rights, a vigilant judiciary, and a free press.

Tunisia’s new democracy, building upon the consensually agreed April 11 decisions, and the electors’ voting decisions, has a reasonable number of credible constraints in place.

A crucial democratic constraint is that Ennahda, with only 40% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, has had to form a coalition with two secular parties in order to get the necessary 50% plus 1 majority to form a government.  If Ennahda were to ever succumb to pressures from Islamist militants in its base, it would probably be in the interest of the two secular parties in the coalition to withdraw from the ruling coalition.  Ennahda, in the de facto parliamentary setting created by the April 11 laws, could even lose its control of the Constituent Assembly.

Another major constraint is that there is agreement among virtually all the opposition and the government party leaders I talked to—including Ahmed Nejib El Chebbi, the leader of the most important secular party, the Progressive Democratic Party, which polled less well than predicted—that the elections were in fact free and fair. Crucially, Chebbi went on to say he was certain that free and fair elections would actually be held again in twelve to eighteen months, after the Constituent Assembly has completed its work.  When I asked Chebbi why he did so poorly in the Constituent Assembly elections he said he made a mistake of following the advice of his US-based election consultants, who urged him to concentrate on television ads. He told me that in the next election he will spend more time and effort on grass roots organization.  He predicts that, given the problems of the world economy, and the great pressure on Ennahda to deliver on their economic promises, a broader coalition of opposition parties will have a serious chance to form a government after the next round of elections.

Chebbi, and indeed virtually all the party leaders I talked to, such as the incoming Prime Minister of Tunisia, Ennahda’s Hamadi Jebali, and Ennahda’s outgoing party president, Rachid Ghannouchi, now see elections as “the only game in town” for acquiring political power. This political incentive-based assumption, in itself, is one of the things Linz and I argued long ago is necessary for a democracy. The vast majority of political party leaders I talked to praised the work of the Independent Electoral Commission and the role of international election observers and want, and expect, them to play an important role in the next elections.

Tunisia is not Algeria in 1992, nor France in 1905. Nor is Tunisia in the throes of a counter-revolution. To say, as Daniel does, that “the prospect of a Western-style democracy and complete freedom of religion now seems nothing but a fleeting memory” in Tunisia, is to get it wrong. Tunisia may not be putting in place the French-style, 1905 form of hard, secular democracy that Daniel seems implicitly to prefer, but Tunisia is undergoing a democratic transition, one in which secular party leaders and religiously-based leaders in Ennahda are crafting new and promising forms of democratic contestation.