You could be forgiven for feeling suitably gloomy about the prospects of the Arab uprisings. The Geneva sequel is failing to change the horror on the ground in Syria, Egypt has gone full circle, and militias are running amok in Libya.
But two Arab uprising countries are giving us renewed hope. Yemen and Tunisia have recently made significant headway in their transitions and have shown the triumph of consensus politics.
In the space of a week Tunisia overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, swore in a new cabinet and secured a 500 million US dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These landmark successes were only achieved through the concessions of both Islamist and secular forces that together produced a remarkably liberal and progressive constitution.
In Yemen, compromise also won out at the National Dialogue Conference after delegates from across the social and political spectrum agreed to a set of principles aimed at guiding Yemen’s future course. For a country so close to the brink of civil war, the outcome of the conference marks a real victory for the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Yemen still needs to write up a new constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections; but slow and steady appears to be its recipe for success. The conference went four months into overtime, yet in the end it produced tangible results in a peaceful manner. The establishment of a federal system, a parliamentary quota for women and a plan to undo the marginalization of the South were all agreed upon, despite continual expressions of dissatisfaction from members of Southern movement Al-Hirak, which is calling for a return to a divided Yemen with the pre-1990 borders.
Similarly, months of political deadlock in Tunisia were ended when the leading bloc in parliament, the Islamist Ennahda party, stepped down last month. The government’s nonviolent handover of power, so unlike former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi’s ousting, has seen the installment of an interim government of technocrats. The IMF loan also stands in clear contrast with Egypt’s many botched attempts to seal a deal with the international lender.
Inevitably, it has been a long and messy process. At times it looked as though both Tunisia and Yemen would fall back into old habits. When gunmen on a motorbike shot opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi in Tunis last summer, the country nearly descended into anarchy. Instead, all parties displayed remarkable flexibility in drafting the constitution, embracing both secular and Islamic values. Then Ennahda bowed out—something of an anomaly in the Middle East.
Tunisia now needs to safely clear the next hurdle: drawing up an electoral law and holding transparent elections while fending off the threat of Islamist militancy may prove to be the greatest test yet.
An even more cautious optimism applies to Yemen. The country’s leaders face an almost insurmountable challenge in fixing Yemen’s failing economy, chronic unemployment and deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions. The committee tasked with refining the details of the future federation is still meeting.
Yemen needs to tread very carefully not to undermine its fragile progress. It should avoid the polarization of Egypt and emulate the compromise of Tunisia. The key now, beyond paperwork and principles, is implementation of the agreed structural and political changes. On this front, the road ahead will be a very steep and unremitting climb.