PARIS — After two volatile years, culminating in the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda has agreed to step down and negotiate with its secular political rivals.
The development marks an opportunity for the administration of President Barack Obama to avoid its past mistakes and engage effectively with a strategic North African country.
On Dec. 17, 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the midst of morning traffic in Tunis. His desperate act of protest was the catalyst for the Arab Spring, an unprecedented political wave that either toppled or weakened the rule of almost every autocratic ruler in the region.
In Tunisia, the protests forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the corrupt and self-serving dictator, to flee to Saudi Arabia, clearing the way for democratic transition. It was a moment the likes of which Tunisia had not been offered since its independence in 1956.
What happened next, however, mirrors what has happened in Egypt after its own revolution. Ennahda, an Islamist party inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, capitalized on its network of mosques and was promptly elected to power in a country that has traditionally been the region’s most secular.
During the past two years, Ennahda’s rule has been nothing less than catastrophic. Despite financial lifelines thrown to the party following the revolution, the Tunisian economy is at its worst point in a generation.
The spending deficit more than doubled in the last year, from 4.8 percent in 2012 to between 7 percent and 10 percent today. The deficit has increased Tunisia’s external debt to 47 percent — nearing the critical 50-percent mark — and unemployment remains at 16 percent, higher than at almost any point throughout Ben Ali’s reign.
The lack of opportunities for young Tunisians was a key factor that triggered the Arab Spring. Ennahda failed to respond to these aspirations. Rather, it spent more time consolidating its own hold on power rather than creating jobs, the issue most critical to Tunisians.
According to European Parliament member Jean-Paul Benoit, Ennahda filled 60,000 positions in an already bloated government with political allies.
The government’s real failure has been its inability to calm the climate of political instability that followed the 2011 revolution. It was unable to prevent the 2012 attack on the United States Embassy, where radical Islamists ransacked both the US government buildings and an American school.
Tunisians are arming against their fear that the government is not able to protect them. The climate of insecurity reached new highs this year as two prominent secular opposition leaders were gunned down in public.
An upside is that Ennahda’s leaders are being forced to temporarily stand down, giving the country another chance at a functioning democracy. This moment also affords President Obama a new opportunity to correct his calamitous foreign policy course with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states.
The president has lost his influence in Egypt by throwing his support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has fallen from power under the pressure of street protests and an ascendant military. The White House cannot make the same political miscalculation in Tunisia, where the stakes are high.
The country is a strategic US ally. To Tunisia’s east lies a chaotic Libya. The country also borders the lawless Sahel territory between Algeria and Mali, where a terrorist threat is still present. In the past, Tunisia has been the area’s only stable point, an anchor for the region.
Tunisia now has a second chance to reestablish itself in that role.
Ennahda officials will spend the next two weeks in negotiations with all major opposition parties, notably with Beji Caid el Sebsi and his party Nidaa Tounes, a secular group that currently ranks first in opinion polls.
Opposition parties like Nidaa Tounes face an uphill battle to the presidency. The party has historically lacked the funding and organization of Ennahda, which has financial backing from Qatar.
President Obama now has a second chance to overcome past policy failures and play a vital diplomatic role in the MENA region. Let’s hope he takes it.
Joseph Benzekri is a businessman and founder of Tunisia Libre, a Paris-based network that promotes Tunisia’s emergence as a modern democratic state.