x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tunisia's vote offers the Arab world a model

As Tunisians voted, in large numbers and without problems, the people of Egypt and Libya will have been watching and dreaming of their turns.

For decades, the 10.6 million people of Tunisia had not been asked for their opinions about their country's governance. But on Sunday they got a chance to speak up, and they did so loud and clear, voting to choose members of a national assembly which will select a government and draft a new constitution.

Millions of Libyans and Egyptians, watching news reports of the voting, will surely be inspired as they await their own moments to express themselves too. There is much to learn from Tunisia's example.

Tunisians voted in impressive numbers. Election officials say that fully 90 per cent of the 4.1 million citizens who had registered to vote actually did so. Another 3.1 million who had not registered were also eligible to vote, but a turnout figure for them was not available.

By any measure, the eager participation, the rarity of fraud and security complaints and the peaceful scenes at polling places across the country all revealed just how heartily Tunisians welcome the country's new beginning. "Today feels like a rebirth," one electoral official told local media.

To be sure, Tunisia still has a long way to go. The process of forming a government may be protracted, depending on how many of the over-100 political parties win seats in the assembly. Government-building will be the real test of how well parties and factions with varying ideologies cooperate in the national interest.

Voting is, after all, not a magic ritual that ensures a government in the service of the people. Iraq, too, had free elections after a dictator was overthrown - albeit by foreign forces - but democratic power-sharing is not exactly flourishing in Iraq today.

So far, however, Tunisia, where the Arab uprisings began, has clearly set the pace for Libya and Egypt, and with luck Syria and Yemen, to follow. Those countries, with their unique situations and issues, cannot be expected to match the Tunisian example fully. In Egypt, in particular, a well-entrenched military government shows no eagerness to permit elected civilians to write a new constitution on a blank sheet of paper. And Tunisia at least possessed the outlines of state institutions even during its rule by despot, something Libya can not boast.

But Tunisia's experience so far, up to and including Sunday's vote, does offer other Arab countries a shining example of what can be accomplished. This really does feel like a rebirth.