New Agreement Could Bring Democracy Back In Tunisia

A deal between the ruling Islamists and the secular opposition has opened a new path for Tunisia. NPR's Rachel Martin gets a post-Arab Spring update on the country from researcher Monica Marks.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The very first of those frontlines, Tunisia, has had its share of dark days since the revolution - a struggling economy, two high-profile political assassinations and a general sense of political instability. But it's also possible that a new political deal reached just last week between the ruling Islamists and the secular opposition parties could get the democratic process back on track in Tunisia.

For more on Tunisia's continuing transition, we're joined by Monica Marks. She is a researcher for St. Antony's College at Oxford University, based in Tunis. Welcome to the program.

MONICA MARKS: Hi. It's good to be here, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, can tell us about this recent agreement? What does it achieve symbolically and practically? And how did it get to this point?

MARKS: The opposition parties wants to push the government out of power following Tunisia's second political assassination. There were protracted negotiation about whether or not to actually push the elected government completely away from power and to dissolve Tunisia's sitting parliament, which has been tasked with writing the constitution, but which has failed to deliver a constitution on the timeline that it promised.

So looking across to what happened in Egypt, the opposition said this is a window for us to really kick the government out. The government said, no, we have been elected; we're legitimate, we're not going. You had battles between both sides, a kind of on the street - not actual fisticuffs but protests. Neither side could resolve it on the street. They went into negotiations, and very difficult negotiations for a couple of months. And this was really the first positive actual decision that came out of those negotiations. So it's a very important step.

MARTIN: How closely have Tunisian leaders been tracking what's been happening in Egypt? Particularly the Islamists in Tunisia, have they been paying attention to the fact that Mohamed Morsi - the Islamic-backed democratically-elected president of Egypt - was ousted is now facing charges there?

MARKS: Oh, paying attention is an understatement. I think most Tunisians share a deep concern with what's happening in Egypt regarding the coup there. But for the ruling Islamist party in particular, this has been particularly terrifying. Tunisia doesn't have a strong army so this option of a military-backed coup was never really on the table. But they were very cognizant of this pattern that the region seems to have of Islamist parties winning, as soon as there's a Democratic opening. But once the Islamist parties win, they're pushed back.

This happened in Algeria in the early 1990s. This happened in Tunisia in 1989. So the people at the top there are much more pragmatic. They've learned lessons through history. They've tended to play the long game.

MARTIN: So in light of all of that, is it possible that Tunisia could still be a model for its neighbors who are also trying to navigate the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

MARKS: Well, I think talk of models is a little premature right now. But I do think in the future, the Tunisian model is very possible. And I think as international observers we should not discount the power of a positive regional example in terms of offering some rays of hope to the region.

MARTIN: Monica Marks, she's a researcher for St. Antony's College at Oxford University, based in Tunis. Monica, thanks so much for talking with us.

MARKS: Thanks for having me.

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