Tunisia election result: A first for Arab Spring, a chance for Obama

Results from Tunisia's election show a huge voter turnout but also high hopes for job creation. The West, led by Obama, must not let down this leading Arab nation.

Tunisia’s voters have again set a model for Arab countries still on a rough road to democracy. More than 90 percent of registered voters had their forefingers inked at well-run polls on Monday. And more than half of the seats went to secular parties, not Islamic groups.

But the election also marks something grander. For the first time, there will be a democratic government in the Arab world born of a popular uprising. (Iraq’s semidemocracy was born of invasion.)

The United States, which has long seen Israel as its only democratic ally amid a sea of Arab regimes, must now embrace this small North African nation of 12 million as it moves toward full democracy.

The future of the Arab Spring depends on it. President Obama should offer a free-trade pact to Tunisia, for example, and encourage Europe to provide more investment and aid. The US can also train many of its entrepreneurs and welcome more Tunisians to American campuses.

Young people in Tunisia may quickly become disenchanted with the slow pace of a new democracy. Unemployment is about 15 percent nationwide. It may be double that for youth and in rural areas – where the “Jasmine Revolution” erupted last December after a young fruit-seller set himself on fire in protest over his economic frustration.

For the coming year, the newly elected leaders will be focusing on writing a constitution and reforming a rigid and corrupt state apparatus left behind by an ousted dictator. Political maneuvers, as in any democracy, could slow the process. Yet the people’s expectations have been raised that the new government will create jobs soon.

A coalition government still needs to form in coming days. No party won a majority of seats for the temporary parliament. The moderate Islamic party, Al Nahda party (also known as Ennahda, or the Awakening), likely won about 43 percent and promises to not dominate top government posts.

Al Nahda, which says it looks to Turkey’s moderate Justice and Development Party as a model, sees its role as less in stoking the economy than in pushing family values and honest bureaucracy.

A healthy economy would go far to keep this Muslim nation from considering harsh Islamic social rules like those in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Europe and the US have a stake in helping Tunisia keep a secular nature to governance, especially with Egypt’s elections coming soon.

This election helps shatter the myth that Arabs can’t act in a democratic fashion. But now this pioneer nation, whose every move is followed on Arabic satellite TV channels, needs help to shake up its dormant economy and consolidate its revolution.

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