Tunisia bucks the Islamist narrative. Why can't journalists tell its story more broadly?

The Arab Spring has been an unmitigated disaster, right? Sure it has, because isn't that the primary message you've learned from wherever you get your news?

Well, yes, that's mostly true. Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, the Arab Middle East in general; they've all gone from bad to worse. And because that which bleeds leads, media coverage of the series of national uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring has focused by a wide margin on the news of disaster.

(Journalists take note: Try to avoid premature optimism when coming up with catch phrase-labels, particularly if you're dealing with the Middle East.)

But, in fact, the Arab Spring has not been across the board bad news. There's also Tunisia, where it all started more than five years ago, but which gets far less American media attention because, by regional standards, the violence there has been relatively-- and I emphasize "relatively" -- light.

Tunisia is often cited -- and properly so, from a liberal Western standpoint -- as the Arab Spring's lone success story.

Here's the top of a New York Times piece that lays out the Tunisian reality.

TUNIS -- The leader of Tunisia’s main Islamic political party was re-elected on Monday, winning endorsement for his effort to move the party away from its Islamist roots and stay in tune with the country’s five-year-old democratic revolution.
The leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, a renowned Islamic thinker who spent 22 years in exile during Tunisia’s dictatorship, had tears in his eyes Monday as he embraced his rival in the party vote, which he won with 800 of the 1,058 ballots cast.
The vote, a culmination of a three-day party congress here in Tunis, was a victory for Mr. Ghannouchi, 74, and an important turning point for his party, Ennahda, as it seeks to separate the party’s religious and political activities.

Sounds good, right? An Arab state upending the commonly accepted cliche that an Arab Muslim society simply will not, can not, prefer democracy over theocracy. Take that, you skeptics!

But wait. Here's another plot twist.

As paradoxical as it might seem, Tunisians are voluntarily joining violent Islamic militia movements in Iraq, Syria and Libya in greater numbers than are any other nationality outside the aforementioned nations.

How can that be, you ask? Because Tunisia embodies the complex religious and political struggle over the future of the Arab Middle East reverberating across Arab society from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.

This Guardian piece provides some insight into this aspect of Tunisia's struggle. Here's how it opens.

It’s lunchtime in the Tunisian city of Kasserine. From plastic chairs at a pavement cafe on the city’s main thoroughfare, a group of young men are watching the heavily-armed guards patrol the city’s best hotel.
Here in Tunisia’s second-biggest city, security is paramount. It’s only a few hours’ drive east from the Algerian border and the Chammbi mountains, a known training ground for Islamic extremists. It’s also one of the poorest cities in the country, where unemployment is rife, especially among young people, making many marginalised young men vulnerable to the lure of extremist recruiters.
As a result, Tunisia is now the largest exporter of jihadi militants in the world. According to the UN, more than 5,500 nationals between the ages of 18 and 35 have joined militant organisations, including Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida’s affiliated Nusra Front, across Syria, Iraq and Libya.
UN experts say that while “some [recruits] are prompted by religious and political ideologies,” many others are lured by the promise of financial gain, or a sense of purpose and belonging.

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia when a young street peddler died after setting himself on fire to protest his lack of opportunities and treatment by Tunisia's then-dictatorial government.

In just 10 days, long-time dictator President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's was ousted from office and the Arab world erupted. The promise of better times, the sense that ordinary people could topple entrenched Arab despots and effect real change from below, gave rise to the optimism that led to the Arab Spring catch phrase.

Speaking of optimism -- and its opposite, actually -- it's not difficult to find pieces in American and European media maintaining that Tunisia is by no means on safe ground, despite the progress it's made.

Take this recent piece, for example, from The National Interest It warns that the Islamic State would love to pull off another spectacular attack in Tunisia, which could gut it's tourist trade and shatter its economy, leading to a turn away from the nation's budding democracy.

Perhaps. But for now, Tunisia's gaining more positive than negative reviews, that is when it does get the press attention it deserves.

Here are three such pieces from diverse sources.

The first is a Washington Post blog post that compares Tunisia's success as a democracy with Turkey's failing democracy. The second, from The Jerusalem Post, measures how Israel's democracy stacks up against Tunisia's. The third is this laudatory piece from The New York Observer.

A little contra-narrative, good news can't hurt. Try it.

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