International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Where Will Tunisia Take Us?

in Program

By Shannon Zimmerman and Guy Hammond – Most Tunisians have waited a
lifetime to vote in an election in which the result was not predetermined. On
October 23rd, they had that chance. Roughly 90 percent of registered Tunisian
voters waited patiently, some for hours, to cast their ballots for a
constitutional assembly – the body tasked with rewriting Tunisia’s
constitution over the next year. Following the success of peaceful, free, and
fair elections, Tunisia
now faces the daunting task of reconciling diverse interpretations of the
country’s democratic future. The constitutional assembly’s ability to harmonize
secular democratic principles and Islamic beliefs within the constitution could
set a precedent for other Arab Spring countries.

The October elections were a
triumph in their own right, as Tunisia
faced and overcame the inevitable problems of a country conducting its first
free elections – including a plethora of small political parties, a lack of
civil education, and poor access to reliable information about electoral
processes and party platforms. With more than 100 newly minted political
parties to choose from, deciding on a party was a daunting task. In fact, eight
out of ten Tunisian voters polled in late May said they needed more information
on important issues such as voter registration, polling locations, party
platforms, and candidates. To address these issues, Tunisia established an Independent
High Authority for Elections (ISIE), tasked with everything from voter outreach
and registration, to monitoring political parties’ plans and finances. Realizing
the difficulty of their task, the ISIE postponed the elections from July to
October and continued their outreach to educate the populace about voting
procedures. Grassroots campaigns, websites, and other media also contributed to
ensuring that parties’ messages reached the public. Benefitting from Tunisia’s
developed infrastructure and literate population, civic education campaigns
were able to reach the masses in a record amount of time.

Ennahda, the moderate
Islamic Party that had been banned in Tunisia until 10 months ago,
received around 40 percent of the votes and is now the largest single party
represented in the 217-seat constitutional assembly. Its longstanding opposition
to the former ruler, strong anti-corruption credentials, and Islamic moral base
has made it the default choice for many Tunisians. The party’s platform also
benefited from a strong campaign strategy and sound organizational structures
leading to their unquestionable domination in the elections.

The head of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi,
affirms his party’s dedication to a moderate form of ‘Tunisian’ Islam from
which its values are drawn, but said it would not pursue an Islamic state.  This new rhetoric, evolving slowly over the
22 years of Ghannouch’s exile in London,
contradicts the party’s violent past, which includes the bombing of tourist
hotels in the 1980s. Some secularists and moderates are concerned that Ennahda
is hiding behind a moderate veneer until they obtain power, after which they
will push a more hard-line agenda.

In spite of these fears, the
post-election climate is promising. Ghannouchi already has announced his
intention to pursue stable political alliances with secular parties. This
includes alliances with Ennahda’s closest rivals, two secular socialist
parties: the formerly banned nationalist leftist Congress for the Republic, led
by Moncef Marzouki, and Ettakatol, led
by Mustapha Ben Jaafar. Both leaders have indicated their willingness to work
with Ennahda and talks to form a coalition have already begun. The next real
indication of progress will be whether the various parties, under Ennahda’s leadership,
can successfully unite to create a constitution that encompasses Tunisian
values, promotes freedom, and protects human rights.

Being the first post-Arab
spring country to overthrow its dictator and the first to hold elections, the
Tunisian transition foreshadows obstacles that Egypt,
Libya, and Yemen will have to face. This includes
finding a balance between proponents of a secular government versus one based
on Islamic law. Tunisia
is helping to define the role that Islam will play in emerging Arab democracies
and has set a bold example by having non-violent, free elections less then a
year after the ousting of their dictator. As Egypt’s
November elections approach, accompanied by increasing violence between
religious groups, many would like to look to Tunisia as a bellwether of what is
to come. However, it remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s successes are an
exception, or a trend that can be replicated in other transitioning countries.


Photo Credit: By Freedom at Issue, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6286258694/in/photostream/

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