Another Arab Spring Moment That Matters

The past month has featured plenty of massive headlines in major American newspapers about the tragic events in Egypt. The largest and most consequential Arab Spring country has featured its share of turmoil since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, and the American media has provided these events the coverage they deserve. But we should not let our attention on a tragic July in Egypt distract us entirely from an equally tragic and also consequential July in the country where the Arab Spring first started, Tunisia, and where it had its most promise.

Just last week, for the second time in five months, a leading opposition politician was murdered in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. In February, it was Chokri Belaid. This time it was Mohammed Brahmi, in front of his wife and family. The government has alleged that the same gun and potentially the same political forces were behind both assassinations. Tunisia has always been a protagonist in the events of the Arab Spring, and Brahmi's assassination threatens a happy ending in Tunisia at the most critical moment so far in its transition to democracy.

Tunisia remains a central part of the story of the Arab Spring. Going first matters, and Tunisia was the first country in the region to overthrow its autocratic regime through popular protests. It was just under three years ago that Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, vented his frustration with the seizure of his cart by the an official of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime by lighting himself on fire. Within two months, Ali's regime was deposed, street protests in Egypt inspired in part by the popular protests in Tunisia had deposed Hosni Mubarak, and Libya was soon to follow.

Tunisia not just went first, but it seemed like it had the best chance of consolidating its revolution into a stable constitutional democratic regime. Egypt had a famously repressive security state that delayed democracy long after other factors suggested it should have emerged. Libya faced the "resource curse" that countries with oil often encounter, and that often discourages investment in human capital and encourages corruption.

Tunisia might be a neighbor to Egypt and Libya, but it seemed a world apart. The security state was never quite as deep, potent or repressive as that in Egypt. Tunisia invested more in its citizens, including by featuring some of the most progressive laws relating to women in the region.

Tunisia not only went first and promised to do better, but the process of creating a new democratic constitution promised to influence the rest of the region. The Egyptian Constitution was drafted and ratified too quickly, and was never inclusive enough to accommodate the full range of ideas and interests. The Libyan Constitution is still facing a violent and unduly rushed process before it can see the light of day.

In Tunisia, the process was bumpy, but still featured the kinds of debates about first principles that made many think the Tunisian debate might become the Arab equivalent of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Major issues were raised, debated fully, and then resolved with interesting compromises. For instance, Tunisia was the host to debates in major cities and small towns about whether to have a presidential or a parliamentary system. Major foreign experiences with this question of constitutional design were highlighted. President Moncef Marzouki hosted a National Dialogue that appeared to chart a compromise position based on the French Constitution.

Tunisia has also demonstrated, thus far, that a moderate Islamic party can play a constructive role in creating a democratic constitution. Ennahdha, the Islamic party with plurality control of the government, has made key compromises on important constitutional issues--including on the role of religion in government.

Now, though, these reasons to think Tunisia mattered, and mattered for the better, are all complicated by Brahmi's assassination last week. Tunisia had just reached a critical and positive juncture: the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the combination of legislature and constitution-drafting body, had started to wrap up its work on a final draft of a constitution. The NCA featured a Committee on Consensus that had met this month to resolve major issues. The NCA expected to vote on a final constitutional draft by September.

Instead, after Brahmi's assassination, there have been protests in the streets of Tunisia calling for the dissolution of the NCA. Several dozen members of the NCA have withdrawn from NCA activities. In the northwest of Tunisia, eight Tunisian soldiers were killed in an ambush on Monday.

The contrast of being on the verge of completing the constitution and now featuring this kind of chaos makes the situation that much more problematic. It is one thing to have problems on the path to a final constitution, which are to be expected. It is another thing to have these major problems right when the country was on the cusp of major success. This complication is aided by a tragic irony: the Tunisian Revolution started in the same city, Sidi Bouzid, where Brahmi was born--and it is Brahmi's assassination that threatens to derail what that revolution started.

There is reason to hope, though, that Tunisia will return from the brink of chaos, and not become a smaller but equally disastrous Egypt. The government has not imprisoned opposition leaders in response to the chaos, as the Egyptian regime has done. Instead, it has announced new elections to accommodate opponents. If the government and the opposition can continue to tolerate one another and work together, there is still reason to think there could be a happy ending soon. For the sake of Tunisia, and the Arab Spring, let's hope that comes true.