A peaceful election in the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring.’ Nov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
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.)
Tunisia and its jihadists.Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
it is less than three years since the fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking the events that toppled dictator Ben Ali and launched the “Arab Spring.” Now, the high hopes of those days have faded, and Tunisia is in disarray, its society deeply divided and violence flaring.
8:46 AM, Oct 3, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
On and around September 11, 2012, al Qaeda attacked multiple American assets around the world. The attack that has received the most attention is the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. But the U.S. consulate in Libya was not the only diplomatic facility assaulted by al Qaeda-affiliated groups in September. Terrorists with ties to al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, were involved in at least three other U.S. embassy sieges in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and possibly elsewhere.
5:05 PM, Dec 1, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
Earlier in the week Israel Hayom reported that the new Tunisian constitution may include “a section condemning Zionism and ruling out any friendly ties with Israel.” Yesterday Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of al-Nahda (Revival), the main Islamist party that won more than 40 percent of the seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections two weeks ago, disputed the report. “I don’t think this clause will be included in the constitution,” said Ghannouchi.
Arabs against themselves.Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By LEE SMITH
Half a year after the fall of Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, it’s time for a partial reckoning of the Arab Spring. Verdict: Uncertain.
May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By ELLEN BORK
In his speech at the State Department on May 19, President Obama called Egypt essential to the future of democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa. As the largest and most influential Arab country, Egypt could in large part determine the course of the regional uprisings and the prospect of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. Yet violence against Copts, rising crime, and attacks on Israel’s Gaza border and its Cairo embassy are causing alarm about where “democracy” in Egypt is leading. And for good reason.
Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Spring isn’t what it used to be. Here, for example, is Robert Browning in 1841:
The year’s at the spring,
12:37 PM, Mar 21, 2011 • By AUSTIN BAY
Where the political shockwave inspired by Tunisia's democratic rebellion will lead we don't yet know. We do know what set Tunisia's revolt in motion: the end of Arab fear. When an oppressed people snap fear's psychological bonds, they shatter the tyrant's most potent weapon.
10:47 AM, Mar 1, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
In his opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, Senator John McCain expressed his support for the protesters across the Middle East. “[T]he historic changes now reshaping the broader Middle East are a direct repudiation of al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies,” McCain said.
From the Scrapbook.Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
In Tunisia, a street vendor set himself on fire, antigovernment protests followed, and Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. In Egypt, liberal opposition groups chanted “Freedom, Freedom” in rallies beginning January 25, and by week’s end Egypt’s authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was wondering whether his 30-year reign was about to come to an end. Even in Yemen, protesters took to the streets seeking to destabilize the 20-year-old regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.