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What Makes Tunisia Different?

Tunisia's new Prime minister Mehdi Jomaa (left) shakes hands with his predecessor Ali Laarayedh during a handover ceremony in Tunis on January 29, 2014. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
Tunisia's new Prime minister Mehdi Jomaa (left) shakes hands with his predecessor Ali Laarayedh during a handover ceremony in Tunis on January 29, 2014. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

In a rare and historic development in the Arab world this week, an Islamist party stepped down as part of an orderly democratic transfer of power. It happened in Tunisia, the country that sparked the pro-democracy uprising three years ago that became the Arab Spring.

Tunisia has seen plenty of strife in the interim, including the assassination of two liberal political leaders. But while Tunisia’s neighbors, including Egypt and Libya, have slipped on the path to democracy, Tunisia just passed the most liberal constitution in the Arab world.

George Washington University political science professorNathan J. Brown joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss what makes Tunisia different.

Interview Highlights: Nathan J. Brown

What Tunisia did right

“Certainly, if you compare Tunisia to other countries in the region, what has happened in Tunisia is something, I think, Tunisians can rightly take pride in. I think the closer you get to the scene, sometimes what you find is perhaps more a sense of relief than jubilation; the sense that Tunisians skirted a disaster, that they were in a very, very confrontational situation, that they’ve been a very protracted transition, and managed to hammer out a deal at the end.”

What Tunisia did differently

“It is a fairly liberal constitution. There have been liberal elements in other Arab constitutions. This probably is more liberal than most of them. What’s been missing in other Arab societies is a good political framework, is a real pluralist political framework, underlying any liberal language. And that’s what Tunisians may have, is a real pluralism in the political life, which will allow some of these constitutional provisions to take on some real meaning.”

“Tunisians, from the beginning, designed a process that was based on ‘no victor, no vanquished.’ You look at a series of decisions that was made in Tunisia — decisions made by the Tunisian voters not to give any single party a majority; decisions made by the political leadership in Tunisia that they had to deal with each other — that is what gives them a much more successful outcome than Egypt.”

Differences between Egypt and Tunisia

“In Egypt, when Hosni Mubarak was forced to relinquish power back in February 2011, the military stepped in and took control. It did so to popular support, but all through the Egyptian transition process, the military has been running the show or lurking in the wings with every other political actor in the country trying to draw it in. In Tunisia, the military simply has been absent as a political force, and that’s meant that the various Tunisian political forces have to deal directly with each other, rather than waiting for the military to come in and save them when things go wrong.

“The recent steps in Egypt — the ouster of Morsi, the passing of the constitution — probably has the support from the majority of Egyptians, but it doesn’t have the support from all of them. Egyptians are badly divided, and the problem is in the last three years, they’ve played this winner-take-all game where whoever has the support of most people or the military gets to rule. In Tunisia, the people are also badly divided, but they’re more evenly divided, so the various political forces have to deal directly with each other.”

“Egypt and Tunisia have different trajectories. Egypt is obviously one of the first states in the world. The formation of the modern Egyptian state, in a kind of bureaucratic sense, goes back to the 19th century. Tunisia is a little bit more recent. It also had autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, was sort of self-governing in the 19th century. Both countries were under European control, but French control in Tunisia was much longer, more obtrusive, lasted really until the 1950s, whereas the British declared Egypt independent in the 1920s.”


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