In Tunisia, 10.5 million people have changed the world. The Arab Awakening began in Tunisia when the people rose up against Ben Ali, their authoritarian ruler. Last month they wrote the next historic chapter by holding a free, fair, well administered, and democratic election—the first in their history. They took an important step from the old order to the new; from fear to hope.
This will not be the end of the story of a renewed Tunisia living in freedom. It may not even be the end of the beginning. But this vote is very consequential for Tunisia, the broader Arab world, and the March of Freedom.
I was in Tunisia for their October 23 election as part of the International Republican Institute’s election observer mission. What I saw and heard was inspiring. The cadence of Freedom’s March does indeed beat in the hearts of men and women everywhere. And Tunisians continue to make the world anew.
On election day I met Habib Grar, an 84-year-old Tunisian, at a polling station in Tunis’s La Marsa area. Outside, nearly 500 men and women stood in orderly lines in the hot midday sun. Some had been there for over four hours patiently waiting to cast the first meaningful vote in their lives.
Grar stood out in the crowd. He wore a suit, tie, and traditional red Fez hat with a tassel. After he had voted and walked outside, with a smile he raised his arms in triumph and people cheered.
In the 1950s, Grar had been imprisoned by the French because he was a freedom fighter against colonial rule. When I asked him what the vote meant to him, he pulled a faded newspaper article from his wallet. It was marked 1955. There was a photograph in the story of him walking through a crowd, holding the reins of a horse with Habib Bouguiba atop. Bouguiba was returning from exile. A year later he became the first president of an independent Tunisia.
Grar, with a sparkle in his eye, said he had struggled for freedom all his life. He dreamed of “democracy where even the minority will be protected.” With the revolution and this vote, “today we have succeeded. I am very satisfied,” he told me. “Today I am proud of Tunisia.”
The vote’s meaning was not only recognized by this dignified, elderly man who had dedicated his life to winning freedom for Tunisians. Many young voters who shared their stories with me also understood.
Manel is a young 19-year-old girl full of dreams. I met this large-eyed Tunisian with a wide, beautiful smile at a polling station in the Salambo neighborhood of Tunis, the capital. It was early evening and the polls were about to close. She had been there since 6 a.m.—except when she went to vote herself—as an independent election observer for the National Council for Liberties, an nongovernmental organization led by Sihem Bensedrine. When I asked her what this election meant to her, she held up her purple finger. She told me, “When I went to vote and put my finger in the ink well, I cried because I was so happy.”
Manel’s head was covered and she was wrapped in a cape. She said she was very religious. Wise beyond her years, she told me, “The challenge for Tunisians is in their minds. We have to learn to accept each other, not be divided. We have to respect basic human rights. The election will help, but it will take time.”
Tunisia has taken three historic steps: the revolution that cast out authoritarian rule, a transition that was secure and stable, and now their first real vote. Next, a culture unfamiliar with compromise must learn the habits of collaboration and cooperation.
More than 100 political parties and over 1,000 independent candidates contested the recent election. Predictably, the vote was fragmented and no one won a majority. The biggest vote, nearly 40 percent of the total, went for the Islamist party Ennahda. That means over 60 percent of Tunisians favored a different approach, voting for various secular parties.
Ennahda presents itself as a moderate party that tolerates opposing views and seeks compromise on Tunisia’s new social contract. If so, a democratic Tunisia can gain firm footing and flourish.
But the proof does not lie in pronouncements of practical problem solving. The majority of the Tunisian voters who did not choose Ennahda will be watching, as will the rest of the world. And many are concerned and skeptical.
At a polling station in the Le Kram neighborhood of Tunis, I talked with Emnazlizi, a 23-year-old student in jeans and sneakers. She told me that she became politically active five months ago and was serving as a political party observer on election day. “Tunisia is at a crossroads,” she told me. “One path leads to democracy and freedom. The other leads to another form of dictatorship, a religious dictatorship. I am afraid.” Then tears began to line her face as she said, “We did not do all this to end up like Iran.”
At the same site, Sallouba, who is 62, told me that she hopes her party wins, but even if it does not she hopes things will be O.K. She also cried as she said to me that she was emotional “because we are writing the history of our country. I have such hopes that it is good. It is exciting. Yet I have fears, fears we may return to another dictatorship; one of the Islamists. But mostly I am happy. I am hopeful.”
In sparking the Arab Awakening, Tunisia inspired the world. In its stable transition it demonstrated maturity. In its well-run, free election Tunisia has again led the Arab world. It has shown the way to Egypt and others in the neighborhood. And as it begins its post-election path, if it develops the habits of democratic moderation, respect, and compromise, Tunisia can be the historic lever that changes the Arab world forever.
The most lasting image of Tunisia’s election day occurred at the polling station in the La Goulette primary school. There I watched Oussama, a 47-year-old pilot, standing in line to vote along with his wife and his two sons, ages 5 and 6, who were carrying small Tunisian flags. After he and his wife cast their votes, we visited. He told me he brought his children with him because “they asked if they could come to the poll. They have been listening to us talk about it. My son participated in a mock election in class. They are excited and so are we.”
Oussama continued, “It should take time. You cannot force people to understand overnight something that they have not had for 40 years. It should take time, but people will be patient. I brought my family here because we have been waiting for this day for decades. We are celebrating. It is a new day. It is a better day for us, and more important, it is a new day for my sons.”
Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, and as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan.Top