As Egypt continues to spiral down the path of authoritarianism, Tunisia held its first free, fair and competitive elections on October 23rd. By all accounts, the elections registered virtually no violations, and witnessed the resounding plurality victory of the Islamist al-Nahda Movement. The movement cast to abeyance during the dictatorship of Ben ‘Ali won 41 percent of the votes and 90 seats of the Constituent Assembly. The first order of business for al-Nahda is to form an interim transitional government to oversee the promulgation of a new democratic constitution for Tunisia.
Like the electoral process, the aftermath of the election results unfolded in an impressive fashion. Most of the losing parties conceded defeat and “bowed to the will of the Tunisian people. The elections are historical not only in Tunisia, but for the rest of the Arab world as well. Tunisians rose up to the challenge as the whole world observed their electoral contest. In so doing, they set the example for the rest of the Arab world in their ability to conduct peaceful democratic elections. The Tunisian success assuages fears in some western circles and local skeptics on the ability of Arab societies to fully implement basic institutional tasks leading to the elections. In this respect, most Tunisians I talked to commend the colossal work of Yadh Ben Achour, head of the Election Commission (ISIE), in the tedious task of party list registration.
Tunisia has passed the first test with flying colors, but the toughest work lies ahead. The new government and constituent assembly have to tackle issues of freedom of the press, police reform and economic development. The new constitution should undoubtedly embody principles of separation of powers, horizontal accountability, individual and group liberties and a firm emphasis on the rule of law. Islamist leaders of al-Nahda will be the first Arab Islamist party in charge of a political system. The naysayers and alarmists will inevitably doubt the abilities of al-Nahda and question its motives. Al-Nahda will have to dispel orientalist arguments of democratic dissimulation and show real commitment to principles of good governance. Al-Nahda leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has so far spoken in favor of a civil state and Tunisia's secular liberal code of personal status, which among other things, bans polygamy. His vision is for a synthesis between Islam and modernity as al-Nahda aims "to ensure stability, to reform justice, and to prosecute corruption cases, putting an end to it, in all its forms."
These are remarkable times for Tunisia and the Arab world. Despite still re-entrenched dictatorial regimes in Syria and Yemen, Tunisia and Libya (except for the summary execution of Gaddafi) show the potential for an Arab democratic renewal. No longer can the world dismiss the Arab Middle East region as a zone of democratic deficit. As Tunisia undergoes a fascinating political experiment, the eyes of the world will be closely watching, but ultimately the fate of Tunisia is for the first time in the hands of its own people.