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Is This Arab Spring Country Finally Getting It Right?

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Tunisia — the country that launched the Arab uprisings — is celebrating the third anniversary of its revolution Tuesday.

Since the departure of Tunisia's dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there's been a struggle between religious and secular forces, which has been the case in other Arab Spring countries.

Egyptians are voting Tuesday and Wednesday on a constitution that's seen mostly as a referendum on the military that ousted an elected Islamist leader and has sought to crush dissent. Libya remains dogged by political turmoil. And the Syrian civil war keeps getting more complicated.

Tunisia did not fall as far as these countries, and now it appears to be making political progress.

Consider Mounir Khelifa, 62, who was dining with his friends at a fashionable restaurant on the beach in the capital, Tunis.

Khelifa is part of Tunisia's significant secular population. Most live on the coast and look across the Mediterranean toward Europe. Khelifa is a literature professor. He is Muslim, but he doesn't want religion to play a role in Tunisia's new democratic government.

Before the revolution in 2011, when overt religion was discouraged, Tunisians didn't fully know each other's beliefs, he says. Khelifa and his like-minded friends were convinced that the majority of Tunisia's 11 million people were secular.

When the moderate Islamist party Ennadha won 42 percent of the seats in an elected constituent assembly in 2011, they were stunned. Khelifa says he and other secular Tunisians don't trust the Islamists.

"The government that is dominated by the moderate Islamists is getting its hands on all the apparatuses of the state, and we feared that they would move towards an authoritarian, theocratic system of government," he says.

Ennadha supporters include Nabil Rezgui, 43, who is at the mosque every morning at 6:30 when the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer for the first of the five daily prayers.

Afterwards, Rezgui heads to work as the manager of a sports apparel store.

"I wanted a democratic government that was also Islamic. Some of both," says Rezgui, who voted for Ennadha. "The party had a lot of good ideas, but I admit they made some mistakes."

The inexperienced party was inept at governing. The economy got worse. And people say the trash doesn't even get picked up. And the Islamist-led government was accused of letting radical Salafi Muslims wreak havoc. Many in the secular camp were outraged last year when two secular politicians were gunned down in broad daylight, allegedly by Salafis.

After the second assassination, women, students and trade unions protested for weeks, demanding that the Islamist-led government step down. Meanwhile, the military coup in Egypt – ousting an Islamist party there – sent shivers through Ennadha. They agreed to sit down with the secular opposition to draft the country's constitution.

Attia Fattoum is an Islamist member of Tunisia's elected assembly. She says the party did right to compromise.

"There's a mix of everyone in Tunisia. And it's not because we have a religious movement now that the secular people are going to go away," she says. "We've got to live together and respect each other."

Ennadha has also agreed to step aside for a nonpolitical, caretaker government and new elections this year. That process has already started.

People in Tunisia can watch their lawmakers write the constitution on the Tunisian equivalent of C-SPAN. There have been hard-fought battles, such as the one to enshrine equality between men and women.

When Article 45 on equality did pass, assembly members rose to their feet to sing the national anthem.

Though each side is hardly getting everything it wants, it's this constitution — a roadmap for the future — that reassures both Rezgui in his sporting apparel shop and Khelifa in his restaurant.

"I feel hopeful and optimist. Both secularists and Islamists and activists from civil society all got together and worked out a solution which is possibly not a perfect one but a workable one," says Khelifa, the secularist.

As Tunisians celebrate their anniversary, many say that for the first time since the revolution, they feel confident they're building a democracy.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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