Tunisia's emerging democracy

On Oct. 24, the eyes of the Arab world were on Tunisia, where the first contested presidential election in the Arab world took place. Three candidates competed for the support of Tunisian voters: Zein Al Abdeen ben Ali, the sitting president, Abderrahman Tlili of the Democratic Union, and Mohamed Belhaj Amor of the Popular Unity Party.

Although Ben Ali won once again, the election marks a watershed in Arab politics between the autocratic rule of the past and new politics of pluralism.

This contested election did not happen overnight. It was the result of President Ben Ali's tireless efforts to create the necessary economic and social conditions for democracy.

Those conditions began with Ben Ali's commitment to strengthening opposition representation in parliament. His amendment of the electoral laws guaranteed the opposition 20 percent of the seats in parliament. Women won 12 percent of the seats.

Ben Ali's economic reform policies have made Tunisia the envy of neighboring states. Tunisia is the first Arab country to qualify for partnership with the European Union (EU). Given the stringent requirements, Tunisia's economic performance is impressive. Its economic success has been praised by the International Monetary Fund. Economic reform has led to a growing middle class - the guardian of democratic ideas.

Tunisia's social and educational policies have contributed to political pluralism. The government has taken enlightened steps to change the personal status laws, empowering Tunisian women, who enjoy all the rights that women in Western democracies enjoy. This is why most women's organizations endorsed Ben Ali for president.

The Tunisian experiment, however, is not above criticism. Tunisia's exclusion of the Islamists is sometimes cited as a prime example of exclusionary politics. Indeed, in the early 1990s, the Tunisian government was heavy-handed in dealing with the Islamist opposition. But many critics changed their minds as they watched a bloody civil war in neighboring Algeria. With its scant resources, Tunisia could not afford such a price, which crippled oil-rich Algeria.

New, independent media in the Arab world, coupled with greater Internet access, also contributed to making this election transcend the boundaries of a small North African nation. Novelty alone made the three-way race in Tunisia a lead story on Arab TV screens. Hence the Tunisian election is likely to have a lasting impact on Arab political culture. Regardless of whether or not the Tunisian experiment with democracy is successful over time, it will affect politics in the region. It is impossible to erase these new democratic images from the Arab consciousness. Tunisia has broken the taboo.

The Tunisian elections come at a time when the Arabs are watching the rest of the world become democratic while their region lags. Nothing is more urgent in the Arab world today than democracy and a peaceful transfer of power from the older generation to the younger one. Many aging Arab leaders have failed to create conditions or mechanisms for a peaceful, democratic transfer of power.

This need became palpable last year when three Arab rulers left the scene in Jordan, Bahrain, and Morocco. Transitions went rather smoothly due to the nature of monarchies, but this is less likely to be true in the Arab republics.

One probable outcome of the Tunisian election is that it will become more difficult for an Arab leader to win a presidency without a contest. Arab presidents no longer can take their publics for granted. If they want to win, they'll have to follow the example of Ben Ali. Tunisia's message to any Arab leader who wants to win his people over is: Create better economic conditions for your own people, have a serious political and economic program, don't neglect new media like the the Internet in campaigning, and fight to win the hearts of voters.

*Mamoun Fandy, a professor of politics at Georgetown University, in Washington, was in Tunisia during the elections.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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