As we move into fall, it is easy to forget about the Arab Spring. What were protests have become wars of attrition, moving too slowly for newspapers and not bloody enough for cable news. Although the media has jumped on news of Gaddafi's death, that is only because it's a great piece of violence porn. While the West continues its manhunt of Gaddafi's family, something just as important has happened a day's drive away from Sirte: Tunisia went to the polls.
Yemen, Syria and Libya are still the Arab Spring's challenges, but Tunisia's election was its first test. It is unfortunate for us that we care little about electoral campaigns and their results, because the future of this new Arab world directly impacts the future of the United States. Tunisia is the Arab Spring's smallest and most peaceful nation; as a Tunisian website put it, “if Tunisia cannot do it, nobody can.” Now that Tunisia has done it, we must investigate the trends that underline Arab democracy.
Tunisians overthrew their dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, this January. Before Ben Ali's 24-year rule was Habib Bourgiba, who ruled for 30. Until now, Tunisia's elections have been profoundly unfair. Ben Ali took 90 percent of the vote in the 2009 election, the closest in Tunisian history. After 10 months of preparation, the country last Sunday had elections for a constituent assembly, tasked to governance and to draft a new constitution. Final reports of turnout nearing 70 percent show the extents of democratic fervor.
The first thing one notices is the Islamist party An-Nahda taking 90 seats, far ahead of any other. Some of us have associated "Islamism" with suicide bombers and Iranian nukes for so long that we ignore how Nahda's policies are capitalist and pro-West. Blame Middle Eastern dictators for the misconception. While Nahda members were trapped in prison, the world only noticed those proclaiming global jihad. For the Arabs, electing Islamists is a sign of their civil society regaining its pride. If Americans refuse to cooperate with the popular choice, they will not only be ostracized against the majority, but also risk giving the radical Islamists talking points. The United States already has abysmal approval in Turkey. Eventually, no sympathetic autocrats will filter the antagonism.
Not that Nahda's victory isn't also raising tensions in Tunisia. After decades of French influence, Tunisian society is split between secular citizens living by the coast and those wanting to reintroduce religion into politics. Even with this divide, Tunisian politicians transcend partisanship. Fighting against skepticism, the Islamists are promising to rule in coalition. Knowing their responsability for the nation's future, the decision-makers act so they serve for all Tunisians. Have Americans any right to criticize them?
More interesting is where the others stand. Parties represented in the assembly range from liberal to communist and from establishment to upstart. Political leaders include those of the old regime, as well as those imprisoned by it. The radicals are encamped on the fringes, having been banned by the electoral board. Tunisia's nation-building is risky, but how can it not be? Compared to Egypt's sectarian violence, Tunisia may as well be the best of all possible worlds. With Russia sliding again into autocracy and new nations continuing to falter, Tunisian politics will serve as a model for the future.
Even if Americans are tuning out, Islamists in Egypt and throughout the region are tuning in. They will take notes on Nahda's victory and use them to move closer to power. America could ignore Tunisia, but they can't ignore Islamists when they influence the Middle East's largest countries. Blocking out the regional players can deeply cripple the United States' national interest, whether it be securing oil supplies, uprooting Al-Qaeda or limiting Iran's nukes. America's leaders know to respect the Middle East, but then they deal with legislators who reject any outreach with Islamists. The result is deadlock and disorder.
There is no doubt that events this year have upset many people's conception of the Arab world. But it is not enough to retreat into ignorance after the Arab Spring. We must continue to let these revolutionaries challenge us, so they can reveal to us the beauty of a society some love to hate. After all, in a democratic system our attitudes alter our national policy. We shoot ourselves in the foot if we recede from the world.