Mostly it’s not talked about, but when the subject is broached, most reactions are nervous and tense, the rest defensive. For over 9 months 50 years Tunisians have been waiting to elect their leaders. With election day fast approaching, most people just want it over with.
The first free elections in Tunisia’s history are a historic day for the Tunisian Republic and the entire Arab world. Revolutions caused not by foreign powers or violent minority groups are few and far between in this part of the world. Tunisia is being looked at by the rest of the world as an example of how a country can successfully overcome years of authoritarianism to create a republic by and for the people. But if that is how the rest of the world sees Tunisia – why are Tunisian’s so reticent about the elections?
The transition period has been a trying time for most Tunisians. Faced with a weak global economy, a devastated local economy, including a near 40 percent drop in tourism (probably even more in revenue terms as hotels and resorts have lowered prices); a full-blown civil war in Libya, and the high expectations of freedom, Tunisians have waited 10 months to see the fruits of their revolution. Instead, Tunisians have seen a marked deterioration in the security situation, the continued presence of virtually all of the former regime officials in the administration (with the exception of those very close to the president and his family), and a political climate that has been more about trading barbs at opponents than reaching out to the common citizen.
Meanwhile, international dignitaries continue to tout the example of Tunisia as a beacon to the world. Aid would be given, democracy would be restored, women would be well-represented, and moderation would win the day. Civil society participants praise the brave Tunisians who brought down their government through social media, and bloggers talked about Slim Amamou and Julian Assange in the same sentence. Government officials talk about the example Tunisia could be to the rest of the Arab world – yes, Iraq had been a mistake, but supporting Tunisia would make up for it! Yes, the West had long supported the corrupt Tunisian government, but this time would be different – they now understand the voices of the “Arab street.” This narrative is reinforced at each step by Tunisian politicians – all unelected – who assure their counterparts that the country is on the right track – this is not the same message delivered to their fellow citizens back home.
For a time, the Western narrative and the Tunisian narrative coincided. The euphoria of Tunisians following the flight of the Trabelsi clan was real and palpable. Tunisians spoke openly and optimistically about their future and their place on the world’s stage. But as the foreign reporters moved on, first to Egypt, then Libya, the myths began to diverge. Foreign newspapers did file some stories from Tunisia, mostly about unrest in one area of the country or another, or perhaps on the hospitality of Tunisians to their warring neighbors. But mostly, Tunisia’s reality was severed from the West’s mythology.
Meanwhile, while many Tunisians kept pressure on the government for reforms, forming citizens groups and protesting; most Tunisians got tired of waiting – the jobs were not there and the politicians were not listening. A tireless campaign by the Independent Elections authority was met by indifference from many Tunisians.
Less than three weeks from the election, nervous foreigners wonder aloud whether they should stock up on water (or perhaps wine – what if the Islamists win?). When the question of violence is raised, Tunisians are defensive – the elections will go as planned, they say, through force of will – if nothing else.. But there is an uncertainty in their voices. It is like the entire the entire country does not want to jinx the elections.
While Tunisian society has held up remarkably well in the face of many obstacles, a violence unheard of under Ben Ali (if it existed, it certainly was not reported) continues in many parts of the country. Reports of the police finding arms caches are rumored and then often confirmed. Last month an army helicopter destroyed seven vehicles carrying weapons, presumably from next door in Libya. One is reminded constantly of what is at stake as tanks and armored vehicles occupy more and more intersections around the capital. An extra 30,000 troops and officers on the street are meant to deter any action by possible troublemakers. One cannot be blamed for being tense about the most important event in Tunisian history since January 14.
In this environment of angst, the Tunisian independent elections authority has continued its work to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Foreign observers will be present, and so far they have put their stamp of approval behind the authority’s work, but mostly they stay in the background. Despite protests from the major parties, the authority has banned political advertising in the final weeks before the elections. Parties big and small are guaranteed the same amount of public space near each voting station (about 2 feet by 1 feet) to advertise whatever they would like to electors. Some parties have chosen to display their leaders’ faces, others long political tracts – to date, most stand empty – one wonders if they are carrying their message to voters through word of mouth.
On a recent day in central Tunis passersby stopped for a quick look at each of the candidates. To an observer, it seems civil, fair, and democratic. Tunisians may be tired of the transition and eager to get the elections past them, but one has the impression that they will do their best to see them go as smoothly as possible.
As foreign reporters trickle back into the country in advance of the elections one wonders if this will be the moment when the Western narrative will once again meet the Tunisian reality?