The world watches as Tunisians vote

The world watches as Tunisians vote
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Starting this weekend, Tunisians will head to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections, the second time in two years one of the youngest democracies in the world will hold free elections. If the vote and transfer of power go smoothly, Tunisia will pass one of the most important tests for a young democracy, which is the first peaceful handover of power.

The successful transition to popular government in Tunisia should be instructive for a region plagued by dictatorship, instability, and turmoil. Tunisian democracy also holds lessons for Western nations who share an interest in fostering a more peaceful, stable, and democratic Middle East and North Africa. It is fitting that the biggest success story of the Arab Spring has unfolded in the country where it all began. Nine years ago, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at his government, sparking uprisings across the Arab world. Although the movement has not produced the reforms many hoped for across the region, democracy established roots in Tunisia. Why?

Perhaps the most important reason is the political culture of consensus. As in other countries across the Maghreb and Middle East, polarization between Islamists and secularists has been a source of tension for years in Tunisia. It even threatened to derail the democratic experiment there in 2013 just as it was getting started. Following the victory of the Islamist party, Ennahada, in the first democratic elections, two prominent secular political figures were assassinated, setting off a nationwide crisis of confidence that threatened the new stability of the government.


But instead of doubling down on factionalism, which could have spiraled into violence, Tunisian leaders chose a path of compromise and restraint. They adopted a new constitution, held national elections, and installed a technocratic cabinet of officials to replace the incumbent government. Following 2014 legislative elections, the two largest political parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, entered into a power sharing agreement, which tamped down ideological polarization and allowed the country to address the urgent socioeconomic challenges facing the Tunisian population.

In contrast, Egypt and Algeria failed to capitalize on the opportunity to rally disparate groups in support of a common commitment toward democratization. In Egypt, counterrevolutionary figures stoked nostalgia for the imagined stability of the former dictatorship to undermine democratic progress. Algerians succeeded in ousting their authoritarian president, but the military remains firmly in charge. People power in Sudan recently deposed a dictator convicted of war crimes, but the experiment with democracy in that Arab country is only beginning.

Outside of Tunisia, perhaps the most democratic progress being made in the Arab world is taking place in Iraq. It remains a struggling and fragile democracy yet holds regular competitive elections. Its many religious and ethnic groups participate in the political process, although sectarianism, corruption, and private militias continue to impede good governance. Tunisia lacks the sectarian conflicts in Iraq, but its democratic future is not guaranteed. Threats to progress include a festering insurgency and a development gap between the impoverished interior and the wealthier coast, which includes the capital of Tunis. Polls show many Tunisians believe the economy is in even worse shape now than during the 2011 revolution that led to the ousting of President Zine Abidine Ben Ali.

There are also concerns about corruption, highlighted by the fact that one of the most popular presidential candidates, Nabil Karoui, a media mogul and philanthropist, is running his campaign from jail. His supporters claim the arrest is a plot to sideline him by his rival, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, while critics point to an ongoing investigation into money laundering and tax evasion allegations.Still, the democratic foundation is likely to prove resilient because of its commitment to political inclusion. More than two dozen presidential candidates are running, including Islamists, secularists, and two women candidates. Most of the candidates recently participated in the first televised presidential debate in Tunisia.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the success or failure of democracy in Tunisia will impact prospects for political reform across the Middle East and North Africa. After Americans have now marked another anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is worth remembering that terrorism incubates in this region when dictators sponsor violent extremists and where failed states do not govern their people justly or responsively, allowing jihadism to metastasize. Tunisia is a frontline democracy of regional strategic import.

Western powers have supported the fledgling Tunisian democracy with financial assistance, technical expertise, and policy guidance. The main takeaway for the United States and its allies is that sustained support coupled with local partners willing to make hard compromises pays off. Patience does as well. Democratic progress is not always linear. It grew in fits and starts over the past nine years and was never a sure thing in Tunisia until it was. How and why it happened holds lessons for the region and everybody who supports a more peaceful and democratic world.

Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute, which together with the National Democratic Institute has deployed international observers to monitor the upcoming elections in Tunisia.