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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tunisia Tests Democracy

In early 2011, a fruit vendor in Tunisia lit himself ablaze, provoking mass anger in the small North African state. This act of desperation started the Arab Spring, which ended the regimes of dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In Tunisia, Former President Ben Ali is living out his days in exile. But Tunisia has a claim most of the other Arab Spring nations can attest to. They’ve weathered the storm well and seem to be on an imperfect but determined path to true representative democracy, while Libya is a lawless mess, and Egypt seems to have come full circle by electing Abdel Fateh el-Sisi
Tunisia faces an important test this year with Presidential and legislative elections quickly approaching. Scuffles between Islamists and liberals are still a very real threat and the country is still plagued by terrorist attacks and assassinations. Elections are scheduled for October and November of this year. Four parties, along with a sizable contingent of independents, make up Tunisia’s parliament. The Islamist party Ennahda is the largest party in Tunisia’s constituent assembly, but the interim president is a liberal nationalist who has worked as a human rights activist.

Islamism could be a very real threat to democracy in Tunisia, especially with the problems in next-door Libya and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Tunisia’s economy is still sputteringfrom the revolution-budget deficit that has risen sharply since the revolution. However, if Tunisia is able to have a peaceful and free election, their economy will likely get a boost. The country also has a considerable tourism industry due to the ancient city of Carthage, Roman ruins, and affordability compared to Europe. While Tunisia does depend on oil, it is far less attached to black gold than other Arab nations, which is rare. Some within Tunisia have complained that none of the present parties have a solution to the economy, but perhaps a clean election will be the boost the country needs.

On September 30, the news broke that 27 candidates will be running in Tunisia’s presidential election, and that the polls are currently led by Beji Caid Essebsi, an elderly secular candidate with background in the previous regime who wants to lead Tunisia in a step-by-step fashion. He is quoted in the New York Times, claiming the transition will be a slow one: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs...You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach.”

Essebsi has a reputation of trying to change the old dictatorship from within but has dealt with protesters in questionable ways as interim prime minister, but one could wager that it’s not who wins, but the process of the election that matters. If Tunisia pulls these elections off fairly, cleanly, and quickly, whoever wins could gain legitimacy among the electorate even if they voted for another.

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