Bloody civil wars, the rise of the so-called "Islamic State," the continued rule by absolute monarchs and other despots, and the ongoing Israeli and Moroccan occupations have left many skeptical of the prospects of peace, democracy and stability in the Arab world.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10 to a group of four Tunisian civil society groups that played a key role in their country's transition to democracy is a reminder of how, if given the opportunity, Arab peoples are quite capable of the difficult work of navigating their nation from dictatorship to democracy.
The Nobel Committee recognized the role of the National Dialogue Quartet -- composed of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) -- for "its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralist democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011."
Tunisia is still beset by serious political and economic problems, as well as the threat of Islamist terrorists and the risk that the government could suppress civil liberties. Still, the country remains the one real success story of the so-called "Arab Spring."
Recent years have demonstrated the power of strategic nonviolent action in bringing down authoritarian regimes. Unlike countries where autocratic governments have been overthrown by armed struggle or foreign military intervention, which usually results in civil war and/or a new dictatorship, countries where democratic civil society organizations mobilize nonviolently are more likely to evolve into stable democracies within a few years.
There is no guarantee, however. Egypt's nonviolent revolutionaries who brought down the Mubarak regime in 2011 have watched their country slide back into authoritarianism. The Yemenis ousted authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh the following year, but the regime largely remained intact, resulting in civil war.
Some have argued that the Nobel Prize should have gone to those on the front lines of the struggle that originally brought down the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Indeed, the story of the four-week unarmed insurrection in the face of brutal government repression during 2010-2011 is truly inspiring.
However, what transpired afterward was also impressive.
Immediately following Ben Ali's flight into exile, his prime minister assumed power as interim president, replaced the following day by the former speaker of the lower house of parliament. Since both were leading members of Ben Ali's ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally party, however, protests continued, forcing the inclusion of leading opposition figures in the cabinet.
Demonstrators persisted until top government posts were purged of any remaining members of Ben Ali's party and were purged of other close associates of the former regime by the end of January. An interim government organized free competitive elections to be held that October.
As in Egypt, conservative Islamists had an organization advantage, with their Ennahda party winning a plurality. But they were willing to share power in a coalition government.
Ten months later, though, many thousands of Tunisians were on the streets protesting the government's efforts to restrict women's rights and curb civil liberties in the draft constitution and its failure to stop violence by Islamist extremists.
Protests escalated the following year, particularly in reaction to the assassinations of two popular left-wing secular leaders, leading to a general strike in July 2013 amid calls for the Islamists to step down. Fears increased of a bloody crackdown, a military coup, or even civil war.
However, the Quartet then came to the fore to negotiate the transition to a provisional technocratic government and the drafting of a democratic constitution.
The constitution ratified in January 2014, one of the most progressive in the world, includes provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, and protection of the country's natural resources. In October, Nidaa Tounes, a center-left coalition uniting secularists, trade unionists, and liberals, won the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary election. The coalition's presidential candidate, Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected in December.
One remarkable aspect of the process was not just that secularists and Islamists were able to negotiate an agreement in the country's best interests, but that sharp divisions within the Quartet had to be resolved before the negotiations even began. The ideological range of the Quartet included the decidedly leftist Tunisia General Labor Union and the pro-business UTICA (which effectively served as Tunisia's Chamber of Commerce).
The union's general secretary, Houcine Abassi, noted how the political parties were "sticking to radical intransigent positions and they were not looking out for the general interest." As a result, "we decided, as a union movement, to shoulder our responsibilities. We considered there had to be one independent neutral party and that party should be worthy of everyone's trust."
It is perhaps not coincidental that the one major success story of the Arab Spring comes from the country where the United States was least involved. Unlike in Egypt, the United States did not help arm, train and finance a massive military apparatus. Unlike in Bahrain, the U.S. did not back the government in its suppression of pro-democracy forces. Unlike in Libya, the U.S. did not intervene militarily. Unlike in Yemen, the U.S. did not support blocking the establishment of a democratic representative government.
In Tunisia, however, representatives of the nation's people were able to take the lead. And they chose democracy.
[Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.]
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.