The Iranian political demonstrations now under way have roots in the Arab Spring upheavals that began in December 2010 in North Africa. The starting point was Tunisia, the rare success story of the Arab Spring—despite two major terrorist attacks in 2015 and this week’s protests against austerity, the country has in recent years enjoyed the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of political disputes. By contrast, other Arab Spring upheavals fizzled out (as in Bahrain), produced humanitarian disasters (as in Syria), or ended up in a return to undemocratic rule (as in Egypt). In his highly readable Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, Safwan Masri explains the traditions of moderation that contributed to Tunisia’s political successes over the past six years.
Masri, a senior administrator and professor at Columbia University, argues that Tunisia’s success is largely owed to the political legacy of its founding president, Habib Bourguiba. In a review of Bourguiba’s interests and idiosyncrasies, Masri says that he was a “brilliant visionary” who protected women’s rights; implemented a secular, liberal arts curriculum for all school-age Tunisians; and promoted a non-resentful attitude toward the West while most other postcolonial Arab states adopted Baathist and Nasserist ideologies. To be sure, Bourguiba held onto power for 30 years and used authoritarian methods to bolster his personality cult. In that sense, he was similar to Turkey’s great secularist reformer, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who also used non-liberal means to liberalize his country.
When the Arab Spring overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship in January 2011, Tunisia had elements of a healthy political culture that other Arab countries lacked. Thanks to Bourguiba, the country had made progress toward secularization, the protection of women’s rights, an emphasis on liberal education, and, in the field of foreign affairs, a cordial relationship with the West.
Tunisians generally do not think of themselves as part of the one pan-Arab nation, but rather cherish a distinct national identity based on their country’s long history (going back to Carthage) as a standalone political entity. Masri emphasizes their reform-mindedness, strong civil society, and their traditionally pro-Western outlook. Masri’s book is a celebration of Tunisia’s extraordinary accomplishments, but it is also a lament—that Tunisia’s liberalism has had little influence beyond the small country’s borders, and, for that reason, its success is not likely to be replicated.
Dore Feith is a senior at Columbia University, where he studies history and Arabic.