Tunisia's 'historic' election: 4 lessons

Moderate Islamists appear to be the big winner in historically secular Tunisia's first free elections. Is this a Pyrrhic victory for democracy?

A Tunisian man holds his son as he casts a vote at a polling station
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi )

Ten months after Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death as a political protest — and set off a chain of events that led to the Arab Spring — more than 90 percent of Tunisian voters turned out this weekend for the country's first free and democratic election. Official results won't be released until Tuesday, but the biggest winner in the election for a 217-member assembly charged with writing a new constitution is expected to be the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, long banned under deposed President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. What can we learn from what United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed as a "historic" and "landmark election"? Here, four lessons:

1. Arab countries can do democracy

The Tunisian people's giddy embrace of voting "makes the apathy often prevalent in established democracies seem shameful," says Issandr El Amrani at Britain's Guardian. This surprisingly well-run and transparent election "offers a symbol of hope" to other Arab Spring nations, and to skeptical observers who didn't think the uprisings would usher in democracy. There are plenty of hopeful signs that the era of the privileged Arab leader is over, says Lebanon's The Daily Star in an editorial. When Ennahda boss Rachid Ghannouchi tried to jump the queue to vote, he "was firmly told by the public to get in line."

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2. But when Arabs vote, they choose Islamists

The victory of "so-called 'moderate' Islamists'" is a troubling sign for Tunisia, but it's "likely to be repeated in several Arab countries partaking in the 'Arab Spring,'" says Rick Moran at American Thinker. Sure, Ennahda isn't al Qaeda, but Ghannouchi may still drive "Tunisian society toward Islamification." This is especially worrisome because Tunisia is "arguably the Arab world’s most secular state," says Oren Kessler at The Jerusalem Post. So if an Islamist "wolf in sheep's clothing" like Ennahda can win there, there's little hope for secular democracy elsewhere.

3. Voting for Islamists isn't necessarily a bad thing

"The West views the emergence of the Islamists as the unintended, unpleasant consequence of the Arab Spring," says Arab News in an editorial. But part of democracy is trusting the wisdom of the voters, and "whoever gets people's mandate, they deserve a fair chance to prove themselves." Ennahda takes Turkey's moderate Islamist government as its model, and if the Tunisian party oversteps its mandate and quashes newly won freedoms, "the people who threw out their tormentors recently are unlikely to tolerate the same, old cynical game all over again."

4. Tunisia is very different than Egypt and Libya

With its educated populace, large middle class, strong history of women's rights, and "amazing Mediterranean mosaic of cultures," says Trudy Rubin in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Tunisia has a chance to become the first real Arab democracy." But that means its success may not be replicable. "Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, so it remains to be seen what effect free elections here will have on other Arab countries like Egypt," says Issandr El Amrani, quoted in The Christian Science Monitor.

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