The Middle East Channel

The day after Tunisia's elections

At 6:30 a.m. yesterday, the elections workers on Hope Street were scurrying and the army had taken their positions. My neighborhood elementary school was being taken over to hold the first elections since the overthrow of Ben Ali in January. A small group of voters gathered around the gates on Rue Amel (Hope Street) to cast the first ballots.  

The orderly conduct of voters, observers, elections officials, and security personnel was a constant refrain throughout the day. Tunisians I spoke with almost seemed surprised that their bureaucracy could function so well. Hedia, a family friend excitedly told me, "The observers didn't try and do anything -- they just let us vote on our own." Living in a country that has never held free elections, Tunisian voters seemed to surprise themselves by the efficacy of the process. Now, all attention will turn to the outcome -- not just who won seats, but how the new assembly will be formed and where it will take the new Tunisia.

There were four great tests for the Tunisian election: non-violence, turnout, pluralism, and fairness. Their success was anything but assured.

Many Tunisians worried about the potential for violence during the elections. The war in Libya has created a major security threat for Tunisia. Throughout the summer, the Tunisian press reported on small caches of arms that were found, or criminals in possession of weaponry traced to Libya. The government arrested thousands in pre-election sweeps and deployed 42,000 additional police and National Guard troops to ensure the elections went smoothly. In the end, there were no incidences of Election Day violence reported to the authorities, clearing the way for peaceful elections.

There were also serious concerns that Tunisians would not turn out to vote. After a lackluster voter registration drive over the summer and a widespread sense of disgruntlement with the slow transition process, officials worried that voters would avoid the polls. Despite a massive communications campaign, it was unclear that Tunisians would show engagement in the political process. Although official results are yet to be tallied, unofficial reports indicate that upwards of 70 percent of the population voted, not only legitimizing the elections themselves, but the entire process of writing a new constitution for the country.

Third, many worried that the Electoral Commission would prove biased, leading to illegitimate elections. But the Tunisian elections appear to have been remarkably free and fair. Despite some reported infractions, international and domestic elections observers have largely agreed that the elections were conducted according to international standards of transparency. More importantly, with very few exceptions in certain regions, the Tunisian people, for the first time, saw their officials conduct elections competently and without prejudice. Although there will undoubtedly be some angst over voting infractions and abnormalities, these elections will be viewed as a reasonable expression of the Tunisian people's will. Likewise, despite fears that the elections would be manipulated by outsiders, these elections do not show any signs of outside influence of any kind.

Finally, there were great fears about the prospects of a victory by the Islamist party Ennahdha. Although full results are not yet in, preliminary results show Ennahdha with a commanding lead, perhaps winning as much as 50 percent of the total seats in the assembly. The civil war in Algeria, which started after the military overturned elections won by Islamists, is fresh in the minds of many Tunisians. In the week prior to Tunisia's election, Ennahdha's leader Rached al Ghannouchi raised alarms by calling for his supporters to revolt if the elections were deemed fraudulent. Secularists issued furious warnings about the dangers of Islamist rule. The widely expected Ennahdha victory raised the uncomfortable question of whether Ennahdha would truly be given a fair shot, whether their secular opponents would accept it, and whether the Islamists would live up to their pre-election promises to form a broad coalition government.

In the days following the election, Ennahdha has already reached out to two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettaktol, to form a government of national unity. Both parties have agreed to discuss this possibility with Ennahdha. Meanwhile, the Progressive Democratic Party, which had always refused to ally with Ennahdha (and lost badly on Sunday), announced that it would respect the results of the election and be a part of the opposition. While it is too early to judge, these initial signs of collaboration also point to a major success for the elections and for the coalition building that will be necessary in the Constituent Assembly.

The road ahead will be a difficult one for Tunisia. The plurality of views will make consensus building difficult. Ennahdha supporters, after their substantial victory, may be resentful of challenges to the government and unwilling to compromise on their core values. There are already calls for protests by liberal groups, who Ennahdha supporters are calling sore losers. Tunisian civil society has expanded in the last few months and it will look to influence the Constituent Assembly on human rights, freedom of expression, and censorship. However, if civil society workers display constant challenges to the Islamist majority, they may come to be seen as partisan players rather than defenders of these shared values. Lastly, the economy remains a grim challenge to whichever government emerges. While the Tunisian economy will likely stabilize after the elections, the insecure global economy, particularly that of Europe -- Tunisia's largest trading partner -- will likely be unable to provide the growth needed to cure the endemic unemployment.

U.S. officials thus far have signaled that they are not worried about Ennahdha's victory. But nobody really knows how the international community will react to the seating of an Islamist government, or what policies such a government will pursue abroad. Already, resentment is building at the hysterical reaction of the French press to Ennahdha's victory. Additionally, there will be great temptation for the new government to offer symbolic support for Islamic causes abroad, including the Palestinian issue. It will take great restraint on both sides to manage this politically sensitive relationship.

Post-election Tunisia faces serious challenges. But the debates, for once, will not take place behind closed doors. They will be in the open, in the press, and on the internet. The process will not be easy, but Sunday's elections were a pretty good first step on the road toward democracy in Tunisia.

Erik Churchill

The Middle East Channel

Israel and Egypt begin preparations for prisoner swap

Israel and Egypt begin preparations for prisoner swap

Despite increased tensions between Israel and Egypt since the uprisings that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the two have negotiated a prisoner swap that will take place today. Egypt will free U.S. Israeli Ilan Grapel who was accused of spying for Israel's Mossad during Egypt's uprisings. Israel and Grapel's family maintain that he is a law student who was volunteering for the non-governmental organization Saint Andrew's Refugee Services in Cairo. Grapel had immigrated for the United States to Israel in 2005 and served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Israel is releasing 25 Bedouins from Sinai, three of whom are minors. The prisoners were held predominantly on smuggling and border crossing charges, and none had been arrested for a security related infraction. The Egyptians have been moved to a staging prison and will be transferred from the Taba border crossing near the Israeli city of Eilat. At the same time, Grapel will fly to Tel Aviv to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then fly to New York. This deal, brokered by the United States, came less than a week after Egypt mediated the exchange of Israeli Gilad Shalit for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners. The recent diplomatic acts suggest that regardless of the fall of Mubarak, who had been criticized for yielding to Israel, the two countries can still maintain a business relationship.


  • Tunisia's election results that are expected to confirm Ennahda's lead for seats in the constituent assembly have been delayed until Thursday due to technical issues.
  • There was no major breakthrough in ending Syrian violence in a meeting between the Arab League and President Bashar al Assad meanwhile 17 more people were killed.
  • The U.N. will vote on a Russian draft resolution today to end NATO's Libya mission by the end of October despite a TNC request for an extension.
  • Foreign assistance for earthquake relief has begun to arrive in Turkey as the death toll has risen over 500 and 1,650 have been injured.
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in efforts to restart talks for a unified government that stalled in May.


Daily Snapshot

Yemeni veiled women burn veils in a symbolic and traditional move in Sanaa on October 26, 2011 to protest the regime's crackdown on female protesters. At least 19 Yemeni civilians, government troops and dissident soldiers were killed in continuing violence in the wake of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's most recent pledge to resign (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images).

Arguments & Analysis 

'Of Tunisia and Egypt' (Ursula Lindsey, The Arabist)

"The disastrous way in which the Egyptian elections are being conducted is not just a matter of mismanagement (although there is plenty of that too) -- it is a matter of making democracy as dangerous and confusing as possible. It a purposeful politics of chaos. In Tunisia democratic and opposition forces from across the political spectrum managed to form a consensus about what the transition process should be -- and even now, after competitive and at times acrimonious campaigning, that consensus largely holds. Here in Egypt, everyone is competing -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to the liberal and progressive parties -- in the hopes of securing some influence over the transition period. But the new parliament will have little power as long as SCAF rules the country. I fear that they will simply be legitimizing election-laced autocracy."

'Syria slips towards sectarian war' (Robert Fisk, The Independent)

"Of course, the Assad government had been warning of a sectarian war. Of course, the Assad government has set itself up as the only sure protector of minorities. Of course, the Assad government had claimed that Islamists and "terrorists" were behind the street opposition to the regime. It's also clear that the brutality of the Syrian security forces in Deraa and Homs and other cities against unarmed protesters has been a scandal, which those in the government privately acknowledge. But it's also transparent that the struggle in Syria now cuts through the centre of the country and that many armed men now oppose the army. Indeed, I have been told that Homs slips -- for hours at a time -- out of government control. Damascenes travelling to the northern city of Aleppo can take the bus. But now more than ever, they are flying to avoid the dangerous road between Hama and Aleppo. These are the reasons, I suspect, why so many thousands came to demonstrate in Damascus yesterday. They are frightened."

'Israel's bunker mentality' (Ronald R. Krebs, Foreign Affairs)

"By inducing a bunker mentality among Israelis, the occupation has bred an aggressive ethnic nationalism that privileges the interests of Israel's Jewish citizens over those of its Arab citizens, who have come to feel that they will never be treated fairly in an Israel defined as a Jewish state. At the same time, by paralyzing the Israeli political system, it has strengthened ultra-Orthodox political parties, which have exploited divisions between the right and the left to become kingmakers. In exchange for their parliamentary support, they have demanded economic subsidies for their constituents, who often devote their lives to studying Jewish texts rather than participating in the work force. Educated, largely secular elites, frustrated by low pay and high taxes, have, until recently, been emigrating in substantial numbers, and the long-term prospects for reversing this brain drain are poor as long as the occupation continues. These are the real threats to Israel's founders' vision of a democratic, Jewish, and prosperous state."

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