x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

For all of its flaws, Tunisia's election is already a victory

As Tunisians vote today, following their revolution, they know they face many challenges but also that they have made a lot of progress together already.

A year ago, when Mohammed Bouazizi was still selling fruit on the streets of Sidi Bouzid amid the sinister, omnipresent posters of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with his hands clasped in a sign of victory, Tunisia was synonymous with despair.

If this small, homogeneous, mostly middle-class country was one of the worst police states in the region, what hope could there be for its more populous, poorer or more fragmented neighbours?

The popular uprising that began in mid-December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, in Tunisia's poor interior, spread to the wealthier coast because the Ben Ali regime had become unbearable, even for the elites that had benefited from it.

There were more brutal regimes in the Arab world, of course, but none seemed quite as pettily cruel and vindictive, nor as rapaciously corrupt. I remember being followed everywhere by secret police on my visits to Tunisia, and people terrified of being seen talking to a foreign journalist. Tunisians were even afraid to talk among themselves. The result was a country permanently looking over its shoulder, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The elation of having overthrown their dictator still lingers. Political activists marvel at being able to canvass people on the streets, and debates on various issues proliferate on radio and television and in cafes.

Not everything has been smooth in the transition; it took months for activists to force the removal of ministers who had served Mr Ben Ali, and there remains much scepticism about what has been accomplished. With the economy stalling, job creation - so vital to the young - has not increased.

And accountability for past crimes has been scant. Mr Ben Ali himself has so far been tried (in absentia, as he has sought asylum in Saudi Arabia) on corruption charges only. Much work remains.

Yet as Tunisians prepare to vote for a constitutional assembly today, so much already seems to have been achieved. The RCD, the former ruling party - a virtual parallel state - has been dissolved, as have the secret police. The former opposition has gone from a few anaemic exiled groups to at least 111 parties, enough to confuse ordinary Tunisians. Daily, state television runs five hours of three-minute orations by candidates.

Some parties are offshoots of the RCD, and one test of this election will be how many former RCD officials will return to public life. It irks many to see figures known for sycophancy to the fallen president make their way back. Little polling data is available, but the trend seems to be that the people who will write Tunisia's new constitution will be former oppositionists or new to politics.

Tunisia now has four or five parties that have made the transition from beleaguered vanguard to mass organisations and are approaching the elections with the levelheadedness that comes with having a hope of actually governing, not just criticising from the outside. These parties have credible identities, ranging from Islamist to social-democratic to liberal, reflecting the broad consensus that exists within society.

In most respects, in fact, the parties do not differ much from one another in terms of their policies. For instance, all major parties - including secular ones - agree on honouring Tunisia's Islamic heritage, while the leading Islamist party Ennahda is bending over backwards to reassure voters that it will maintain Tunisia's liberal laws on women's rights and will respect freedom of expression.

Some secular parties have chosen to present themselves as bulwarks against Islamism, but this appears to be an electoral tactic, not the undemocratic ban on Islamist parties that existed beforehand (with, it must be said, the approval of many secular opposition movements).

The country's existing social-democratic system, with free enterprise and a bustling private sector, also meets a wide consensus. And while Ennahda is believed to be the largest and most popular party - it generally polls around 25 per cent - the electoral system is conducive to a fragmented parliament and the formation of a coalition.

While Tunisians are anxious about violence or other disturbances marring the elections, there appears to be little basis for this fear. What may be the most observed poll in history - Tunis's hotels are packed with hundreds of foreign electoral monitors, some of whom have been in the country for weeks - is expected to be trouble-free. The nervousness may be simply because people used to authoritarian certitude and 99 per cent results must now contend with exhilarating democratic uncertainty.

There are some potential dangers, of course. One is that turnout will be lacklustre, notably in the country's hinterland which, having been the ground zero of the Tunisian uprising (and thus of the Arab Spring) now feels neglected again, with little to show for its sacrifices.

Another is a return of too many RCD figures, which could damage the longed-for narrative of decisive change. Unanswered questions include the whereabouts of members of the once ubiquitous secret police - disbanded soon after Ben Ali's fall - that once rigged elections and intimidated citizens.

A revolution creates such euphoria that its aftermath is almost surely a disappointment. But Tunisia, after difficult months, appears to have had a relatively soft landing compared to the morass of Egypt and the chaos of Libya. The quality of Tunisia's political and technocratic leadership, the tenacity of its activists and the wisdom of its people have nourished that success.

Today should see the Arab world's first truly democratic election - without the sectarianism of Lebanon or a background of civil war and occupation as in Iraq.

Other Arabs - whose attention turned away from this peripheral country once the Egyptian uprising began - should give Tunisia another look. As in January, it is proving to be a powerful beacon of hope.


Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist. He blogs at www.arabist.net