The Arab spring has just witnessed its first true success in the country where the protests started in December last year – Tunisia has held its first elections after 23 years of dictatorship under the now-ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. There were worries that the elections would be mired by violence or vote-fixing, but the UN mission overseeing the process declared the elections had been ‘free and fair’.
The elections were held to appoint a constituent assembly, which will then be responsible for running the country whilst it writes a new constitution. This is an essential process as the constitution will provide a foundation on which to build the democratic institutions, like a justice system, which are so far lacking. It will also set out the rules that will govern future parliaments, which will allow fresh elections for Tunisia’s first MPs and lead to normal governance.
The result of the election was known before the people even went to the polls. Ennahdha (the Renaissance), an Islamist party, won with 41% of the vote. This was so predictable for two reasons. Firstly, Tunisians, although moderate in their views, are nearly all Muslims and so naturally vote for a party that supports their faith. The second reason that Ennahdha did so well is that they are the most organised and well funded party, having existed underground during the Ben Ali era and it had a strong history of fighting corruption. That means that people know who they are and what they stand for, which gives them a huge advantage over the new opposition.
However, the voters have not given Ennahdha a majority in the Assembly and the party has announced that it is seeking to enter a coalition with either the CPR or Ettakatol, the two most popular secular and left-leaning parties. An agreement is likely to emerge, which will give heart to those who worry about an Islamist party being in power as secularists are unlikely to relinquish new-found freedoms. And Ennahdha itself is desperate to present itself as a moderate party, proclaiming to be inspired by Turkey’s political situation – where a mildly Islamist party, the AK, rules a secular society. Turkey enjoys the benefits of a booming economy, partly because investors are keen to make money in the Middle East and want a stable political system in which to work. Many in the West are hoping Ennahdha keep to their professed ambition. At the moment they seem to be doing so – recently the party’s leaders announced a new push for equality for women at home and in the workplace. They have also pledged to safeguard democracy.
Despite all this some observers are worried. It is possible that these promises are being made to ensure the release of frozen government funds abroad or to keep Western governments on side during the times of uncertainty. What happens in Tunisia now is crucial to the future of the region as a whole – having been a trailblazer in throwing off its dictator, the country needs to create a safe path to democracy which its neighbours can follow. But even more importantly, events in this once-insignificant North African country could dictate foreign policy all over the world. A rise in Islamism will only increase Western-Arab tensions and possibly Islamist terrorism. The people of Tunisia have a lot of hopes to fulfil.