Max Boot Writes about His Experience as an Election Observer for IRI in Tunisia

Democracy in Tunisia
By Max Boot

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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