If Sunday's elections in Tunisia run smoothly, the country can move from a transitional phase into a full-fledged democracy, offering a model of hope for the region
The spoils of the falling Arab Spring have been divided among many. If the most obvious beneficiaries have been the old guard, Arab autocrats and their foreign allies, who have an equal interest in keeping the region firmly under the thumb, they have not been the only ones. Al-Qaeda's share of the spoils has been a substantial one. It had watched helplessly from a dark distant corner as ordinary Arab men and women rose up to topple the corrupt despots who had crushed them for decades. As the mass popular movements of protest came to occupy the centre stage of history, its grandiose exhibitionist spectacles of violence and devastation looked more absurd than ever. Its claims about the impossibility of change, except through bombs, bullets and blood, rang hollower than empty drums. Never did al-Qaeda seem more isolated and less relevant.
A child of crisis and conflict, it could only flourish in climates of despair and despondency. So as the Arab spring turned into a winter of military coups, sectarianism and civil strife, al-Qaeda breathed a deep sigh of relief and emerged with renewed vigour out of its seclusion. Its credibility was restored and, vindicated, it confidently addressed the Arab public once more: "Did I not tell you so?! Peaceful protests and ballot boxes are not for you! They are pointless. Violence can only be confronted with violence. It is the only way."
The most powerful challenge to this seemingly consistent argument comes not from the Pentagon and its war fleets, but from a small country on the westernmost part of the Arab world. Tunisia, which had shown Arabs a way out of the prison of dictatorship through peaceful protest, is today demonstrating that on the ruins of the old order, a democracy could be built. While the rest of Arab Spring countries have slid either into chaos and civil strife - sectarian and ethnic - or back into the bleak and brutal era of military coups, Tunisia seems to have withstood the powerful storms raging around it. The country is currently preparing to elect a representative parliament on Sunday and a president in November.
The road to these polls has not been an easy one, with numerous terrorist attempts and widespread social unrest. But thanks to a politics of power-sharing and compromise, Tunisia's democratic experiment was kept on track. When it won the October 2011 constituent assembly elections, Tunisia's Ennahdha called for a national unity government and moved to share power with moderate secularist parties within what came to be known as the Troika.
And when the country was plunged into crisis after the assassination of a member of the opposition, which coincided with the military coup in Egypt, Ennahdha gave priority to safeguarding the country's democratic transition over its own partisan interests. In a highly pragmatic move, it proceeded to cede power to a caretaker government to manage the country in the elections' run up, much to its bases discontent.
This realism and acute awareness of the complexity of transitional phases and the dangers presented by a hostile regional context have spared the country much blood and mayhem, helping keep its transition to democracy firmly intact.
Tunisia's Ennahdha seems to have learned much from two decades of repression at home and the failure of democratic transitions in neighbouring Algeria and Egypt. Through their years of exile in European capitals, its leaders appear to have discovered the complex business of politics, with its painstaking negotiations, necessary concessions and changing coalitions and alliances. They seem to have learnt the art of compromise and consensus, which may be the hallmark of the nascent Tunisian political model.
Tunisia is not out of the woods yet. Its democratic process is still under immense pressure. Geopolitics is not in its favour: Libya at its southern border in turmoil, with rampant anarchy, proliferating arms, and disintegrating state structures; Mali further down in the sub Sahara desert in the grip of terrorism, and its wider Arab environment plagued with rising instability. More menacingly is the presence of a Gulf block determined to annihilate what remains of the Arab Spring through manufactured chaos and insecurity, media propaganda and dirty politics, via the power of petrodollars. Though Tunisia is fortunate enough to be geographically remote from this centre of counter-revolutionary conspiracies, it is not entirely immune to its destructive effects, however.
Aside from security, the challenge facing Tunisians today is economic. Thanks to the spirit of consensus, Tunisians have taken substantial steps to laying down the institutional and legal foundation stones for their democracy. Chronic structural problems, political instability and widespread social protests have impeded progress on the economic front. But just as they have translated freedom, the first demand of the Jasmine revolution, into a democratic constitution and free elections, Tunisians must turn dignity, its second rallying cry, into development, equal distribution of wealth among its regions and welfare for all its citizens.
The first wave of democracy revolts may have ended in failure in much of the region, but reverting back to the old ways of "doing business" with the Arab world is unattainable. The clock will not turn back and "stability" can no longer be bought at the price of freedom. Real political stability in the region can only be built on a solid basis of democracy and respect for the popular will. The alternative is non-constructive chaos, neither freedom, nor stability.
Sunday's legislative elections in Tunisia will draw a line under the post-revolution interim phase, transferring the country from the transitional to the permanent. Should these polls be conducted successfully and the necessary political compromises be reached in their aftermath, Tunisia would emerge as the Arab world's first full fledged democracy.
This would not only have implications for its 11 million inhabitants, but would resonate around the whole region. It would offer a model of hope amidst the feverish voices of despair and nihilism competing over Arabs' allegiance, from military dictators and corrupt theocrats to militant anarchists. Tunisia would again chart a third path beyond fatalistic subordination to authoritarianism and the insanity of violent extremism.