x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Elections are the second phase of the Arab Spring

Political dialogue, which has raged on the streets of several nations across the Middle East this year, should not stop at the polling booth.

If protests were the Arab Spring's opening act, its encore is playing out at the ballot box. More broadly and including countries beyond the Arab Spring, constitutions are being discussed and elections are being held. Demonstrations are still playing out on a near daily basis, but from Tunisia to Egypt, many nations now have a democratic alternative to the status quo for the first time in a generation.

This is, by itself, a noteworthy trend; greater voice in facing down corruption, nepotism and bribery is what kicked off this season of change. Yet as momentous as this democratic wave might seem, elections by themselves can be a dangerous seducer. Balloting is only the first step in the democratic process. The hard part comes after votes are tallied.

Moroccans are awakening to this reality. Elections on Friday were once seen as a mandate for the constitutional reforms offered by King Mohammed VI. But while turnout was a respectable 45 per cent of registered voters, apathy was also high. Now that voting is behind them, those who questioned the process must find ways to work within the political system.

Tomorrow it is Egyptians' turn to go to the polls, and already a return to violence in Tahrir Square has overshadowed the process. Tens of thousands in Cairo continue to call for the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to step down. These demands are understandable, but as candidates and voters threaten to boycott voting when the polls open, it's worth asking whether priorities are being misplaced. Having protested long and hard for political inclusion, pulling back now would only ensure that their voices are marginalised in the new political framework.

Even in Tunisia, where the peaceful campaigning and elections were held up as an example for the rest of the region, nothing should be taken for granted. Ennhada, the moderate Islamist party, won 41 per cent of the seats in the legislative elections. The transition has been relatively smooth, but the hardships and concerns that drove people to the streets in the first place will not disappear overnight.

That elections are taking place at all is something to be celebrated. But for real change to happen, high voter turnout and political inclusion is a mere prerequisite. Elected leaders must learn to work together in the people's interest.

Political dialogue, which followed the demonstrations on the streets, does not stop at the polling booth.