28
Dec

Tunisia Wins Again

Written on December 28, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East, Op Ed

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With the election of its first freely chosen president, Tunisia has taken another important step on its post-Arab Spring transition toward democracy. Although the country faces many difficult challenges, it remains a symbol of hope and sanity in a region consumed by chaos and dominated by authoritarian governments.

The winner, Beji Caid Essebsi, is an 88-year-old former government official and leader of the secular, anti-Islamist party Nidaa Tounes. Mr. Essebsi received 55.68 percent of the vote, while Moncef Marzouki, the interim president, received 44.32 percent.

Mr. Essebsi served as interior minister under Tunisia’s repressive first president, Habib Bourguiba, and as speaker of Parliament under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. During the campaign, he promoted himself as an establishment figure whose experience could help ensure Tunisia’s security. Mr. Marzouki, a former human rights advocate, embodied the ideals and fervor of the revolution.

After the results were announced on Monday, Mr. Marzouki conceded defeat, and Mr. Essebsi made a speech in which he thanked his rival and promised to “work together without excluding anyone.” Mr. Essebsi also praised the people who took part and died in the 2011 revolution. The importance of such gestures cannot be underestimated; in many countries, stolen ballots, bitterly contested outcomes and hostility toward political adversaries are all too common.

American officials and experts who know Mr. Essebsi expect him to be an inclusive leader who will work to advance liberal goals like women’s rights and education.

While he will have to satisfy his secular, Western-oriented supporters, one of Mr. Essebsi’s biggest challenges will be cooperating with Ennahda, the country’s Islamist party, which has worked hard to prove that Islam and democracy can coexist.

Ennahda swept to power in the 2011 post-revolution elections, led a coalition government for two years, then handed power — peacefully — to a caretaker government. This paved the way for Parliament to adopt a new, more progressive Constitution that expanded civil liberties.

Despite its responsible behavior, Ennahda, which was excluded from government before 2011, paid a political price for being unable to manage security and revive the economy. In October, it won 69 seats in the election for Parliament, versus 85 for Nidaa Tounes, and did not run its own candidate for this month’s presidential race or directly endorse anyone else.

While Tunisia’s commitment to elections and other democratic processes has been inspiring, building deep roots for the democratic institutions and values that can stand the test of time will take years. Still, the country offers more hope than any other Muslim country shaken by the 2011 political upheavals and deserves as much political and economic support as the United States and Europe can muster.

Published on Dec. 25 by the Editorial Board of the NYT in http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/26/opinion/tunisia-wins-again.html?_r=0

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