Who knew being an election observer was such hard work? When the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit, U.S. government-funded organization devoted to democracy promotion, invited me to serve on its team watching Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on October 26, I imagined myself lolling by a Mediterranean beach, sipping a café au lait, with a short break in the middle of the day to ascertain, yup, Tunisians are going to the polls. The reality was several days of nonstop meetings with Tunisian politicos, nongovernmental organizations, and election officials, both in the capital, Tunis, and in Jendouba, a governorate in the northwest near the border with Algeria.
On Sunday, election day, I got up at 5:15 a.m. and, with the rest of my team (an IRI staff member, local translator, and driver), set off, bleary-eyed, to observe preparations before voting booths opened at 7 a.m. We spent the rest of the day driving from polling place to polling place to see if balloting was being carried out by the book. The polls finally closed at 6 p.m., but our job was not yet done—we spent the next three hours locked in a small schoolroom that doubled as an election station, watching as four officials laboriously counted more than 450 ballots by hand.
Everywhere we went, we inquired about election chicanery. We found none. The violations reported to us were laughably minor—for example, some campaign posters being displayed in violation of Tunisian law, which strictly limits the size and location of such advertising. Although there were fears that Ansar al Sharia militants would try to disrupt voting, there was not one terrorist attack in the country. More than 60 percent of the 5.2 million registered voters turned out—not the highest figure possible but still a stirring sight: so many people who had spent their lives under a dictatorship exercising rights that we in the West take for granted.
That the election was so free and fair is impressive enough—remember how dishonest voting was in places like Chicago and Newark not so long ago? Tunisia’s achievement was all the more remarkable considering that there is not one peaceful and democratic state in the entire Arab world. (Iraq is sort of democratic but violent.)
Tunisia has been showing the path toward Arab democracy ever since a 26-year-old fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, to protest the harassment he had suffered from heavy-handed government officials. His death set off a month of protests that brought down longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. That triggered antigovernment protests that shook the entire region. In Libya and Syria, the result was perpetual war; in Egypt, the rise of a new dictatorship. Only Tunisia has continued to stumble toward self-government.
The first free elections, held in October 2011, left the Islamist Ennahda party in the lead but with far less than a majority—it won 37 percent of the vote, forcing it to form a coalition government with two secular parties. The rule of “the Troika” got off to a bad start in September 2012 when a fundamentalist mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis, although, unlike in Libya, no American diplomats were hurt. This was followed in 2013 by the assassination of two leftist opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
Secular political leaders blamed Ennahda for tolerating Salafist terrorists. Protesters took to the streets, the Tunisian General Labor Union called a strike, and for a few months the country appeared to be on the verge of coming apart. But cooler heads prevailed. Rather than cling to power the way that Mohamed Morsi had done in Egypt, Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister resigned in January 2014. Ali Laarayedh was succeeded by a technocratic caretaker administration under Mehdi Jomaa, whose task was to supervise parliamentary elections on October 26, to be followed a month
later, on November 23, by a presidential election. (The president’s powers under the new constitution remain unclear but appear to be less significant, in many respects, than those of the prime minister.)