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Tunisia: The Little Country that Could... and Did

Article by Charity Wallace November 1, 2011 //   6 minute read

On Sunday, October 23, Tunisia made history.  

This relatively small country changed the landscape of the Arab world last January with protests that resulted in the demise of the Ben Ali regime and the birth of the Arab Spring.  A mere nine months after Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia, the country set an example for the rest of the Arab world with their peaceful and democratic elections.  The wave of freedom and democracy started with this small country and has spread like wild fire across the region. Blue ink stained the fingers of millions of Tunisians on Sunday, signifying that they had made their voices heard in the first democratic elections in Tunisia.  There was palpable optimism and enthusiasm amongst Tunisian people, seen through a very high voter turn-out, even in extremely rural communities.

When asked what they wanted for Tunisia, all said they hoped for a secure, peaceful and democratic Tunisia. As part of an International Observation team with the International Republican Institute, I was deployed to a small town called Beja, and the surrounding rural areas, located an hour and half from Tunis.  When I arrived at the first polling station at 6:15am, smartly dressed polling officials were ready and eager for the day’s activities to begin.  The well trained officials meticulously and transparently worked through the check-list of items to prepare their stations for the first voters.  Ten minutes before the scheduled opening of the polling station, the officials opened the doors to eager voters who were already forming lines to cast their vote.  The first two voters I observed were women, the first in her late 20s and the second in her mid-50s. Throughout the day, I would see numerous women cast their votes – many of whom were illiterate, but all of whom were determined.  

At a very rural polling station, I witnessed one woman who found that she was not registered at that polling station and was told she had to travel to a different one to vote, although it was not clear which one.  For most Americans, that would dissuade them from voting, but for this poor, elderly woman, she was not deterred.  About thirty minutes later, our team saw her in a small town, Amdoun, approximately 10 kilometers from the initial polling station in which we had seen her earlier.  She approached us to ask where she was supposed to vote.  We directed her to the election officials to help her find the station.  I was struck by her tenacity, her resolve, and her desire to make sure she was part of history … that her voice was heard on this historic day.

A small, dilapidated road led our team to one very rural polling station.  When we pulled up, there were two cars parked on the road.  As the paved road disappeared into a dirt road, we came upon a parking lot of donkeys.  I was inspired by the farmers and shepherds, men and women, waiting patiently in the sun to cast their vote, most of who were dressed up for the occasion, with men in sport coats and women in dresses.  One colleague from IRI asked a man how long he had been waiting to vote – he replied, “30 years”. Our team left Beja in the late afternoon to return to Tunis so that our interpreter, a young, 23 year-old masters student, could vote.  Her excitement grew as we approached the city.  She animatedly discussed the voting options with our driver.  She was trying to determine who she would support in her first democratic elections.  She said that she remembers going with her parents to ‘vote’ when she was 10 years old.  During that election, citizens were required to show their ballots to the polling station officials indicating that they had cast their vote for Ben Ali.  But on Sunday, Tunisians could finally make their own choice. It appears that Ennahda, the Islamic party, won about 40% of the seats in the new Constitutional Assembly.  While some Tunisians, and others from the Middle East and North African countries, are concerned about these results, Ennahda ran as moderates, on a platform of inclusion for women.

The hope and expectation of the Tunisians that I met is that women will continue to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities they have experienced for years. In an effort to create gender parity in the Constitutional Assembly, officials required that every party’s list be split 50-50 – with men and women on each ticket.  The problem is that almost all the parties only received enough votes to have the top representative from the list serve, and, in almost every case, women were second on the list.  But even with this flawed system, women will represent 24% of the Constitutional Assembly.

Tunisia will have to wait and see if women’s freedoms will remain protected, and if Ennahda will remain true to their rhetoric or if it was just that.  But, all Tunisians should be proud of the success of their elections and of the example they have set for the rest of the region.