Tunisia makes historic strides toward democracy

This past Sunday, Tunisians went to the polls to elect the country’s first post-revolution parliament — the legislature enshrined in the country's new constitution. Next month, they will go to the polls again to elect a new president, with a presidential runoff election in December, if needed.

I was there, helping lead the International Republican Institute's (IRI) observation mission, and was struck by the enormous significance of Tunisia having reached this point. Since 2011, Tunisia has made slow but steady progress in its transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. While most of the Middle East is preoccupied these days with the danger of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) terrorists on the march, and world news is filled to the brim with worries of the Ebola virus and Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Tunisia is quietly becoming a symbol of hope and democratic possibilities.

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IRI's international delegation included both long-term election observers deployed since late August and election day observers that witnessed voting and counting; it also included observers in Belgium, France and the United States. As noted in our statement, "The October 26 elections represent a key milestone in the country's consolidation of democratic institutions and practices. Nearly 60 percent of Tunisia's 5.2 million registered voters cast their ballots in the elections that delegation chairman Andrew S. Natsios called a 'step forward in Tunisia’s difficult path to democracy.'"

It's hard to overstate how much credit the Tunisian people deserve for reaching the milestone of free and fair elections. Dealing with threats from extremists inside and outside the country, finding an orderly way to enable approximately 360,000 registered Tunisian voters living abroad to have their votes counted, preparing ballots and polling stations for the first elections since 2011 while simultaneously preparing for a presidential election that will occur just four weeks later — the Tunisians have been facing daunting challenges.

After dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was chased from power in 2011 by a wave of popular protests, instead of acquiescing in the rise of another strongman or allowing extremist groups to fill the void, Tunisians slowly embarked on an odyssey of forging a new constitution. They invited input and participation from all mainstream voices in the country, and worked to forge their own unique formula for defining the relationship between citizens and their government. As expected, numerous challenges emerged during the process — the role of religion in government and daily life, freedoms of speech and press, and others. Each step of the way, however, the country's political competitors moved back from the precipice of disaster to resolve differences at a negotiating table, as opposed to in the street.

With the success of these parliamentary elections, Tunisia can turn its attention toward cementing its new democratic institutions with a presidential election in November. However, even if that election is successful, as we all hope and believe, it shouldn't be taken as a sign that Tunisia's dream of democracy is complete. While the new electoral mandate will offer reasons for optimism, we only have to look at a few of the world's younger democracies to see how fragile democracy can be early on and how quickly apparent victories can be reversed.

The expectations of Tunisian citizens will be sky high after the elections, and the new government will have limited time to prove it can respond to public demands. IRI polling has continually shown that Tunisians expect their democracy to bring with it better economic opportunity, a better quality of life and both the freedom and stability absent from other countries in Tunisia's neighborhood.

Experience also shows us that to succeed, transitioning countries need the support of established democracies like the United States. There are modest steps the U.S. can take right away, such as inviting a democratic Tunisia to join the U.S. Congress House Democracy Partnership initiative and offering the country other assistance for building the capacity of government institutions at all levels.

Just as importantly, as nearly every Tunisian leader has publicly recognized, the country contains endless bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to growing private investment and small business. The U.S. should pledge to help Tunisia create a roadmap to a new entrepreneurial ethic — a blueprint for breaking down these barriers and tapping into the enormous talent and creativity of the Tunisian people. We should also continue supporting Tunisian civil society to ensure that the gains in tolerance, pluralism and respect for the rule of law made during the last four years are upheld now that elections have been held.

Tunisia still has a way to go to fully achieve the aspirations of its 2011 revolution, and wise Tunisian leaders know it. When the IRI delegation met with the country's transitional prime minister a few days before the elections, he said firmly that Tunisia is "not a model." But as he and all of us who met with him recognize, a vibrant democracy in this part of the world is a very rare thing. That same prime minister smiled at us and said, "but maybe we can be an inspiration ... especially to young people."

It is in our interests — not just America's, but the community of democracies — to help that inspiration shine brightly.

Ambassador Green is president of the International Republican Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of Congress (R) representing Wisconsin's 8th District.

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