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Amid disheartening reports of violence and disease raging in Africa, today we pause and celebrate democracy in Tunisia.
Tunisians cast their votes on Sunday in the country's second ever free elections - and the second election since Tunisia sparked the Arab Awakening. The October 26 election was to determine representatives for their 217 parliamentary seats. While final numbers are yet to be confirmed, the latest numbers report voter turnout was over 69% - an increased participation from 2011’s 51% participation. This is a victory for Tunisia and a beacon for the way forward in the Middle East/North Africa and Maghreb region.
As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has been an example of an emerging democracy for its surrounding neighbors. While it can be argued that surrounding countries have struggled to establish and embrace the true meaning of democracy, Tunisia has systematically built the institutions of a successful democracy, starting with electing a constituent assembly in 2011 to draft and adopt a new constitution. Two years later, they passed a progressive constitution that is especially strong in its protection of women’s rights.
After the Constitution was passed in January 2014, the dates for their parliamentary and presidential elections were set for October and November 2014, respectively. Many were concerned about voter turnout and safety of the election procedures. While not entirely absent of conflict, Sunday's parliamentary elections provide reason for hope and optimism.
The parliamentary elections saw a peaceful transition of power between the two dominant parties in the region. The Nida Tunis party, which ran an anti-Islamists campaign, secured 85 of the 217 seats in parliament. This number gave Nida Tunis the right to lead a collation government and name a prime minister. The Ennahda party, the party previously in power which campaigned on a moderate Islamism platform, won 69 seats. The remaining seats were split among several smaller parties.
The 2014 Women’s Initiative Fellows participated in many aspects of the election with several serving as elections observers, some as first time voters, and one fellow serving as president of the Commission of Election in Sfax.
Dalel Krichen’s story is inspiring and a true success. When Dalel was in the United States in March and April for the first five weeks of her fellowship this year, she outlined an aggressive and robust plan to train women candidates and register women voters to ensure their full participation in this historic election in Tunisia. Dalel quickly implemented her plan upon returning to Tunisia in April and took on the role of president of the Commission of Election in Sfax. Her goal was to register 2,000 women voters -- instead she registered 3,567 women to vote. Dalel sent the below report regarding Sunday's election:
“I'm happy, relieved…we did it. Tunisians voted for a vision of Tunisia based on democracy, human rights and modernity. I’m so proud of them. I'm also proud of the citizens in Sfax. I can't tell you how I felt when they gave the results and Sfax had the best rate of participation in the whole country (76 %). For me it was a historical moment. Being the only female president of a regional campaign made me feel so proud and confident they will include more women in the future.”
Amira Achouri, a native of Kairouan, a traditional region south of Tunis, made voting a family affair. Amira shared the following thoughts about her election experience with her family:
“The revolution that took place, thanks to courageous people in January 14, 2011, had offered the Tunisian people one of the most valuable rights since more than two decades: The right to vote! On October 23, 2011 we were able, for the first time since almost 23 years, to vote for members of the Constituent Assembly, those who would draft the Constitution of Tunisia post-revolution.
“The night before the elections, I couldn’t sleep and I was waiting for tomorrow to come. How could I miss this day? Here again on Sunday 26, October 2014, I went with all my family members early in the morning to implement our right, this time guaranteed to every Tunisian in the new Constitution, and elect the first democratic parliament. We voted, we took pictures and we celebrated.
“In spite of the elections result, which are eventually representative of people’s individual choices, I feel confident about our country’s future as we expressed ourselves and surprised the world by affirming that Tunisia is now on the right pathway to democracy.”
Myriam Ben Ghazi, a passionate women’s rights advocate who was recently featured in Al Jazeera’s piece, The Recent Fault Line, had the privilege of voting for the first time this Sunday. She describes her experience this way:
“That moment I dipped my finger in the blue ink, I felt that I had made a difference.
“A few days ago I voted for the first time in my 24 years of life. I got to be part of the decision-making process. I got to stand for women, minorities and for the youth. I got to voice my thoughts and actually contribute to the future of my country.
“Leaving the polling station I was proud of myself. I had voted not only with my best interest in mind, I also had the best interest of oppressed groups such as homosexuals and people of color in my heart.
“I know my country might not change in the course of the next five years and I might not live to see it but we are on the right path and by voting, each for what we believe for, change will certainly happen.“
Despite the overall success of the elections, there is still work to be done in terms of women’s political participation. One of our fellows, Afraa Fdhil, recently published a piece entitled The Struggle for Female Political Participation in Tunisia in the Atlantic Council which directly addresses this issue.
We are proud to be working in Tunisia with an amazing group of women who are making history.
Betsy Martin is the Program Manager for the Women’s Initiative Fellowship.
Betsy Martin, Regional Development Director, joined the George W. Bush Presidential Center in 2013. A member of the development team, she is responsible for building relationships with corporations, foundations, and other non-profit organizations. She works closely with Bush Institute program directors to obtain support for projects in education reform, economic growth, human freedom, global health, women's empowerment, and aid to U.S. military veterans.
Most recently, Martin served as Deputy Director of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, she was responsible for setting and implementing the vision of the Women's Initiative which seeks to empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries. During her tenure, Martin directed a year-long leadership program for rising women leaders in the Middle East and North Africa and highlighted stories of hope in Afghanistan through the publishing and promotion of We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope.
Prior to joining the Bush Center, Martin served as a Senior Event Coordinator for the Washington Speakers Bureau where she managed speaking engagements and advance for Mrs. Laura Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, Barbara Bush, and Governor Jeb Bush. Martin served in the Bush Administration as Scheduler and Trip Coordinator to Mrs. Laura Bush.
A native of Mississippi, Martin graduated from Samford University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies. She serves on the Advisory Board for the Akola Project.
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