Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

In FP: Cammett Analyzes Tunisia, Post-Election

November 2, 2011

Melani Cammett, associate professor of political science and director of the Middle East Studies program at Brown University, recently examined the results of last month’s elections in Tunisia in an article for Middle East Channel, a news website published by Foreign Policy magazine. In the article, “The Limits of Anti-Islamism in Tunisia,” Cammett identifies key outcomes from Tunisia’s historic election on October 23 and explores the political, social, and cultural challenges the country must face in the future, including drafting a new constitution.

Cammett points out that much writing has been devoted to the victory of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which won 41.5 percent of seats in the Constitutional Assembly in October. But she adds that while most election commentary has focused on Ennahda’s win, it is important not to overlook two other, equally important results: the relative electoral success of several liberal and leftist parties, as well as the poor electoral performance of explicitly anti-Islamist parties.

“By any standard, Tunisia's elections marked a crucial step toward the institutionalization of democracy in a country that has endured decades of dictatorship,” Cammett writes. “The peaceful and orderly process of holding elections sets an important regional precedent.”

“But the election campaign exposed an important rift between Islamists and secularists that will have enduring effects on Tunisian politics,” she writes. “How the new assembly and the competing political forces deal with those issues will be decisive in determining whether the elections now pave the way for a genuine democratic transition.”

Cammett goes on to say the elections “highlighted and heightened the apparent Islamist-secularist cleavage in contemporary Tunisia,” with both secularists and Ennahda officials likening the vote to a “referendum on the cultural identity of the country.”

“The split between Islamists and secularists is the defining issue of Tunisian society and politics at this juncture,” she writes. “With such deep-seated mutual suspicions and seemingly irreconcilable positions on what constitutes ‘free speech’ and liberties, it is difficult to see how a resolution can be achieved.”

Cammett explains that the election results “most directly affect the composition of the new government and the process of writing new rules of the game,” adding, “It is almost axiomatic in politics that victors aim to rewrite the rules in their favor.” But she adds that Ennahda has “demonstrated considerable sensitivity to the fears it provokes in the West and at home,” claiming it is open to negotiations. Cammett says these claims “may reassure some of its critics that the Islamist party will not fully dominate the process of writing the new constitution.”

Cammett specializes in the political economy of development and the Middle East and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on comparative politics, development, and Middle East politics. She recently launched a research cluster at the Watson Institute on human security in the Middle East and North Africa.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor '12