Tumult in Tunis

It was never going to be a straight road from the Arab uprisings that began a little more than two years ago to democratic governments in a region that has not, historically, enjoyed stable democracy. Opposition leader Chokri Belaid's assassination in Tunisia — where the so-called Arab Spring began with street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in December 2010 — marks the peak, so far, in the political and religious attacks that have increased under the watch of the ruling Ennahda party, apparently moderate Islamists who have been either unable or unwilling to rein in the Salafists. Although Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has pledged to form a new, "apolitical", technocratic government next week, it's doubtful if his party will let him.

Just as Egypt is battling political collapse, Tunisia — expected to transition to a genuine democracy before any other Arab state — is back to the tumult of another likely longdrawn street battle. But, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it would be misguided to paint Islamists in government as the problem. They are the elected majority. No progress would be possible without their participation. Tunisia, like Egypt, is an incomplete project, changing painfully.

What exacerbates the transition pains is unemployment and weak economies, with little having changed for the better, as in Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi's own town. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia isn't central to the fate of the Arab world. But if the Arab Spring unravels in Tunis, it would be a symbolic cue for disaster. Ennahda's challenge is to respond judiciously to the rising discontent and deal with the extremists before things get out of hand. Else, its international image of being a moderate Islamist force will be seen to be a facade.

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