BBC Focus on Africa magazine

The following article on the Tunisian and Egyptian elections was published in the Jan-March 2012 Focus on Africa magazine

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that events in Tunisia in early 2011 changed the world. The so-called Jasmine Revolution there, which culminated in the ousting of the country’s longstanding President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is widely credited with kick-starting similar pro-democracy movements elsewhere in North Africa.

At the time of going to press, Egypt was on the verge of landmark parliamentary elections – the first since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. But the Egyptian experience has so far proved quite different to the widely-praised Tunisian vote. Just days before the poll (due to start on 28th November), violence erupted again in Tahrir Square – at least thirty eight protestors, who had been calling for the military government to step aside, were killed in clashes with police.

Although it looked likely that the vote would still take place, the deaths are likely to cast a shadow over[C1]  what should have been a celebratory event.

“We expect the vote to go ahead” says Les Campbell, head of the Middle East and North Africa region at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), in Cairo for the election. “The polling places have been made public and election officials are getting materials in place. But confusion about procedures is rampant and the current unrest on the streets could dampen turnout”.

The symbolism of Tunisia’s peaceful election for a constitutional assembly has been hard to follow. The NDI, based in the United States, called the October 23rd vote an ‘extraordinary achievement’; the 180-strong European Union observer mission, based in Tunisia for several months, said it was ‘transparent on every level’.

The vote came at an historic time for the Arab world – as journalists clamoured to film last minute campaigning on the beautiful Avenue Habib Bourguiba, modelled on the Champs Elysees in Paris, crowds of ecstatic young Libyans draped in the green, red and black revolutionary flags were seen running past, cheering the death of the Libyan leader. 

Many Libyans are now asking themselves if they too could soon be holding elections. “I give Tunisians ten out of ten. They have shown themselves to be mature patriots – they put their differences aside to achieve results,” says Sami Khashkusha, a professor of Political Science at the University of Tripoli. 

“Now I believe as a country we also can lay down our own rules for future elections, andwhat we want our society to be.”

So what was Tunisia’s winning formula? According to the EU observer mission, part of the answer was the commitment by the authorities to organise the election in an open manner. For instance, the head of mission, Michael Gahler, praised the decision to establish an Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) which overhauled the country’s existing electoral structures.

“The Tunisians created a system which inspired confidence,” says Les Campbell. “When fears were raised about electoral fraud, a decision was made quickly to use indelible ink.” And when it became clear that about 3 million people had missed the registration deadline, the ISIE authorised people to vote using their identity cards.

The election was not without its flaws; despite claims that the result would be known ‘within hours’, it was a full five days before it was officially declared. Lack of training for counting staff, plus the fiendishly complicated task of tallying proportional representation votes in districts where there may have been up to 30 candidates, did not make for a quick count. The Carter Centre, which also had observers present in Tunisia, criticised a ‘lack of planning’ and said regulations were ‘loose and blurry’.

This overhauling of existing structures has not happened to the same extent in Egypt, where many of the recent protests seem to have been inspired by a fear that the ‘old guard’ did not want to give up power. Many of those demonstrating on Tahrir Square were calling for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) under Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to stop what they said was procrastination, and hand over to a civilian authority.

Although the military authorities did pledge to bring forward presidential elections by six months, there is still no clarity about the procedure for the writing of a new constitution. There appears to be widespread apathy and confusion over the actual electoral process – with twelve rounds of voting over three months, votes being cast through a mixture of proportional and direct representation and a number of seats have been reserved for ‘workers and peasants’.

“Egypt has been much less open than Tunisia to throwing out their old systems and receiving ideas from outside,” says Les Campbell. “They’ve only had fake elections in the past, and without change they may not be able to inspire the same sort of confidence that Tunisia did.”

And the long-standing problems of a large, underemployed population, which played a vital role in the original revolutionary movement, have not been addressed. “Economic and social issues in Egypt, which has 85 million inhabitants, and questions about the role of Coptic Christians and the Muslim Brotherhood could be factors which derail whatever achievements are made at the ballot box”, says Mohamed Jouili, a Sociology Professor at the University of Tunis.

Libyans also face an uphill task. Not only have the wounds of the past year to be gently healed, but civil society institutions (which are established in Egypt and Tunisia) have to be built from the ground up in a country where, analysts point out, people have had very little experience of involvement in the political process.

But the early signs are encouraging – a new interim cabinet has just been appointed which BBC reporter in Libya Rana Jawad says is aimed at soothing rivalries between different factions of the NTC. This body is tasked with writing a new constitution and holding elections by next June.

Analysts say every option for a new society seems to be on the table – from restoring the old Libyan kingdom to a federalist Libya. “We have to develop the culture of participation

from scratch,” says Khashkusha. “We need everyone to get involved in civil society, and for them to listen to each other. There are very high expectations, but some of our dreams will have to wait.”

And Tunisia itself is by no means out of the woods. Although the first stage passed off peacefully, the overwhelming victory of the Islamic party Ennahda, who secured about 41 per cent of the vote, means that the constitutional assembly now has to confront some pretty fundamental issues about a secular versus religious identity.

But the symbolism of their success is indisputable, as Egypt struggles to hold its own election. “The most important lesson Tunisia can export to the Arab world

is that no-one should be allowed to have too much control so that they can manipulate a country’s future”, says Mohamed Jouili.


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Categories: *Tunisia and Writing.