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For three years now, the Arab world has been struggling to create a political culture of tolerance that could anchor the revolution for citizen rights known as the Arab Spring. So far, it has largely been a disillusioning story, but there are some rare hopeful signs in Tunisia, the country where the upheaval began.
Tunisia has written a new constitution that could be a breakthrough for Arab democracy. Among other provisions, it commits the state to "parity between men and women in elected assemblies." According to Duncan Pickard, a fellow of the Atlantic Council's Hariri Center who has studied the Arab constitution-writing process, this is "perhaps the most progressive constitutional article regarding equal gender representation in the world."
Noah Feldman, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School, posted a description of the scene in Tunis on Jan. 9 when this "Article 45" was passed: "After the vote, the assembly and audience stood up spontaneously and sang the national anthem. There wasn't a dry eye in the house - including mine."
What's remarkable about the Tunisian constitution is not just that it promises full rights for women and minorities but that Islamist forces led by the Ennahda Party endorsed this outcome gracefully. That's the real breakthrough because it suggests a political culture of compromise in which democracy can actually take root and thrive.
"It is a result of consensus, and this is new in the Arab world," stressed Ghazi Gherairi, a constitutional law expert in Tunis, to The New York Times. The articles of the new constitution were approved by parliament Thursday, marking a milestone in the process that began in December 2010 when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest his lack of rights.
Analysts have contrasted the conciliatory approach in Tunisia with the military coup in Egypt last July that crushed the Muslim Brotherhood government of former President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, Tunisia is the right model, but analysts note the paradox that the Egyptian military crackdown has encouraged compromise by Islamists in the region, who don't want to suffer the same fate as Morsi.
"It was partly the crisis in Egypt ... that prompted Ennahda to make important concessions and seek consensus on the new Tunisian constitution," reported Carlotta Gall this month in the Times.
"The lesson of Egypt for us is that you can't rely on an election, you have to create consensus," says Fadel Lamen, a Libyan who's helping organize a "national dialogue" there to create political common ground. "The lesson of Tunisia," he continues, "is that people have to learn to compromise."
The Tunisian constitutional breakthrough was, in fact, preceded by a national dialogue sponsored by President Moncef Marzouki. Through this process, the Islamist prime minister, Ali Larayedh of Ennahda, agreed to step down and cede power to a more secular, technocratic government. "This was our goal in the national dialogue, so that Tunisians can find an exit that avoids internal conflict," Larayedh said in resigning.
Yemen, too, has fostered a national dialogue to bridge internal divisions. Like so many Arab nations, Yemen is riven by sectarian, ethnic and regional conflict - which makes a direct transition to democracy very difficult. Thus, the logic of dialogue: "At its core, the dialogue presented an opportunity for non-traditional actors, new political forces, and marginalized communities to weigh in on the future of the country," wrote Danya Greenfield of the Hariri Center in a recent post.
Can a similar dialogue fill the political vacuum in Libya? That's Lamen's goal, with support from the United Nations. He notes that political infighting has paralyzed both the Libyan parliament, known as the General National Congress, and the constituent assembly that's supposed to draft a constitution.
"They're fighting for rooms before the house has been built," he says. To prepare the way, he plans a 250-person conference of tribes, unions and other groups in late March to draft a national charter.
Surely, this model would also be useful for Syria as it struggles to end a brutal civil war. Elections won't produce stability unless there's a prior national consensus - perhaps achieved through a U.N.-sponsored dialogue - on what sort of state most Syrians want.
The tumultuous course of the Arab revolutions over the last three years suggests that when it comes to democracy, a nation can't hope to run before it learns to walk. Tunisia seems to have gotten the sequence right - and shown that political stability and compromise are inseparable.