The NYT Editorial Board Needs A Political Science Lesson

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday entitled “Tunisia’s Challenges” that dealt with the tensions between Tunisia’s Islamist government and the secular opposition, and more broadly attempted to grapple with the role of Islam in a nascent democracy. The gist is that Ennahda has promised to respect liberal values and not impose its own views of morality on the rest of the county, but has also tried to engage Tunisian Salafis, and in so doing has imperiled Tunisian democracy and not shown enough commitment to moderation. In the words of the Times,

Ennahda has also drawn fire for allowing the introduction of constitutional proposals that would enshrine Shariah, or Islamic law, and compromise rights for women. The party eventually backed off those positions and the constitutional draft before the assembly omits Shariah and endorses gender equality. Ennahda leaders may have been maneuvering to draw the Salafis into the process, while maintaining their political support, but it gave the secularists another reason to doubt Ennahda’s commitment to moderation…

The pressure is on Ennahda to deliver a Constitution that protects the rights of all Tunisians under a system of equal justice and to create jobs so educated but unemployed young Tunisians are not drawn to the Salafi movement, which would try to exploit their disillusionment. The pressure is also on the secularists to find ways to work with Ennahda to build a better state. That will require more compromise and commitment to the common good than either side has been willing to show so far.

This all seems like a plausible argument, but it also demonstrates that the Times editorialists have a misinformed and naive view of how democracy works and what brings it about. Let’s start with the glaring contradiction in this editorial, which is that on the one hand the NYT wants Ennahda to speak for all Tunisians but on the other seems to want to cut the Salafists, who last time I checked are Tunisian citizens, out of the process altogether. Tunisian Salafi groups espouse extreme and retrograde positions on all sorts of subjects, including women, secularism, and Jews, to name just a few. The problem is that Ennahda cannot just make the Salafists go away. They are a force to be dealt with, and Ennahda’s determination seems to have been to try and co-opt them in order to reduce their capacity to make mischief. In many ways this has been a bad strategy, and the violence carried out by Salafists on university campuses and against television stations is deplorable and has often been ignored or downplayed by the government. There is no good excuse for this – or, for that matter, Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s encouragement and advice to Salafists on how to eliminate secularist power – but what the NYT misses is that Tunisia is not a country with decades of liberal tradition. The Salafists are not committed democrats willing to work within the confines of the political system, and so Ennahda has been trying to figure out a way to bring them in with as little chaos as possible. Yeah, the initial constitutional proposals were pretty bad, but like anything else this is a game of back and forth, and the current draft constitution is largely where it should be.

This brings me to the crucial point here, and the one on which the New York Times needs some schooling. Democracy does not just emerge from the mist, and leaders in a newly post-authoritarian state cannot just close their eyes and tap their heels together and create a democratic political system. Democracy has been aptly described as a second-best solution, because it results from a stalemate in which no side has the power to fully impose its will and thus everyone becomes willing to roll the dice and take their chances with democratic politics in order to win something. Essentially, democracy is installed by non-democrats who have no other choice, and over time democratic politics become habituated and the system (hopefully) becomes self-perpetuating. If this does not describe what is going on in Tunisia, then I don’t know what does. Tunisia is not filled with committed democrats, but is instead a combustible mix of parties that would all like to impose their will. The Salafists would like to create a pure Islamic state, Ennahda likely wants something closer to what the Muslim Brotherhood wants in Egypt, and the secularists want Ben Ali’s Tunisia without Ben Ali. Make no mistake though; the secular parties would just as soon impose their vision of society on everyone as the Salafists would if they had the strength to do so. The fact that none of these factions are able to carry out their will unimpeded is what gives me hope that Tunisia will emerge democratic.

This is precisely how democracy comes about, and yet the New York Times seems to think that democracy is not the end result of a difficult and torturous process. Let’s remember that the United States went through slavery and a civil war, so it’s not like we had an easy time of it either. When the Times editorialists talk about the need for more compromise, the maneuvering around the constitution is exactly that. Parties in a newly democratizing state are not going to compromise out of the munificent goodness of their hearts, but out of the need to break the gridlock, and that is what’s going on here. It may seem counterintuitive, but in new democracies the process is more important in some ways than the substance. Tunisia still has a long way to go, and Ennahda has displayed plenty of disturbing behavior to make doubts about a successful democratic transition perfectly legitimate. I don’t in any way mean to give Ennahda a free pass or to minimize the serious concerns everyone should have over the party’s flirtation with extremely illiberal and violent elements within Tunisian society. But in fretting over the haggling surrounding the constitution and sermonizing about commitment to the common good, the New York Times is missing the point about how democracy is born and demonstrating why taking an introductory course to comparative politics might be a useful thing to do.


A Quick Diversion To Tunisia

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Despite it not being Israel or Turkey, I write about Tunisia a lot as well, and there is some significant news today on that front. Contrary to some who insisted that the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party was no more moderate than any other Islamist party in the Arab world and that their proclamations regarding not making religious dictates compulsory was cover in order to win over Western audiences, Ennahda has announced that it will keep the language in the first clause of the existing Tunisian constitution in place. This may seem trivial, but it is significant because the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of sharia law, and Ennahda is not going to alter that despite its Islamist ideology. This is going to make it harder for them to defend their right flank and will likely prompt an outcry from Tunisian Salafists, who have been demanding sharia law and a rollback of the more liberal social legislation that has been a hallmark of Tunisia since the days of Habib Bourguiba. This is just the latest in a long list of reminders that not all Islamists – even Arab Islamists – are the same. Ennahda advocated for democracy and was receptive (and even positive) toward Western influences well before the Arab Spring, and it has consistently pledged to maintain Tunisia’s secular Personal Status Code. Furthermore, its founder Rachid Ghannouchi wrote decades ago that secularism with personal freedom is preferable to sharia with authoritarianism, so today’s announcement on the constitution should not surprise anyone. Some object to the description of Ennahda as moderate given Ghannouchi’s and others’ statements on the acceptable use of violence against Israel, but the harsh reality is that even Arab liberals espouse some odious positions on Israel and Jews, and moderation in Arab politics is a sliding scale. On every other issue, Ennahda is aptly described as moderate and does not appear to have a nefarious plan to institute creeping sharia through the back door. It instead presents a hopeful model for what an Islamist regime can look like when it is focused on policies that will improve democratic quality and social freedom in an effort to win votes past the initial election rather than on policies designed to create Islamic social homogeneity. It is important to object to Ennahda’s position on when it is ok to kill Israelis since Israeli life should be deemed just as valuable as any other, but that should not blind anyone to the fact that it is a completely different organization in both tenor and practice than the Muslim Brotherhood.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…

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