Though interest remains focused on the gory last minutes of Muammar Gaddafi’s life, the real milestone of the Arab political awakening last week has been the successful holding of democratic elections in Tunisia. The election saw an 80% turn out and was declared free of any evidence of fraud by international observers. The results were also accepted with only a few sporadic incidents of violent protest. That the party supporting the ousted dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, came in a respectable fourth place is only further evidence that the polls were free and fair.
One election does not a democracy make. However, given the total lack of a democratic tradition in Tunisia, the elections should hopefully be a template for other Arab countries taking baby steps towards genuine representative government. The most important of these, of course, is Egypt which will go for its first post-revolt legislative elections in December.
There will be obvious concerns regarding Tunisia’s results. One is that the winner was the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, which won 90 seats in the 217-seat assembly. This will arouse concerns that democracy in the Arab world really means the political victory of Islamicism and the end of secularism in that part of the world. The other is that the electoral results were highly fragmented. At least, four parties won sizeable chunks of the vote share. Even Ennahda probably won no more than a third of the ballots cast. If a small country like Tunisia returns such a fragmented result, sceptics will ask, what does this mean for Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world. There are reasons to argue that these fears are exaggerated. Islam in Tunisia is part of a broader, moderate Islamic tradition centred around the Maghrib.
The Ennahda party leader and the man likely to be Tunisia’s next president, Rached Ghannouchi, has gone out of his way to rule out any circumscribing of women’s rights and come close to saying that beer-swilling and bikini-wearing are civil rights. More importantly, he intends to form a government with two left-wing secular parties. Because it is being treated as a bellwether for the rest of the new Arab democracies, the new Tunisian democracy will be under severe international scrutiny as to its domestic policies. Fortunately, Tunisia has few mineral resources and is, therefore, highly susceptible to global economic pressure.
Democracies being what they are and electorates being as fickle as they must, the likelihood of an Islamicist party coming to power in one of these Arab countries is strong. The strength of democracy is that it tends to moderate extremist political views, and only let such extremists occasionally sample power. The rest of the world needs to be wary of panicking when the ‘wrong’ party comes to power. When democracy returned to eastern Europe, almost all the countries saw communist parties gain power in the second wave of elections. But most also saw these parties, especially those that did not moderate and modernise their messages, disappear into oblivion in subsequent elections. The world must hold its breath and have confidence that the Arab Muslim will follow a similar path of enlightenment.