Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" marked the beginning of the Arab Spring and inspired others in the Middle East and North Africa with its example. Tunisia again made the news when it held its first independent elections on Oct. 23 for a National Constituent Assembly, after decades of autocratic rule.
I traveled to Tunisia with the Carter Center to join its international delegation to observe these elections. Our purpose was to assess whether the elections were democratic. I had visited Tunisia in February and March; it was exciting to see the changes that had taken place since then. Over 100 new political parties had been established, a sign of the enthusiasm for a new Tunisia. At the same time, voters could not keep track of so many new parties, much less what they stood for.
Nevertheless, Tunisians demonstrated their support for a democracy by turning out in high numbers. It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots; many stood in lines for several hours. Election day went smoothly, an impressive achievement given that many of those who organized the elections had never done so before; some had never voted.
To be sure, the elections were not perfect. There were complaints of a range of irregularities, such as international media and money unfairly helping certain parties, vote-buying, media bias, and improper campaigning in mosques and at polling stations. In the end, voters tended to cast ballots for more familiar political parties rather than the newly established ones. Al Nahda, an Islamist party, garnered about 40 percent of the vote, many more than its nearest rivals. It was able to leverage its extensive grassroots network that had long been in place.
The National Constituent Assembly's first job is write a new constitution and then begin governing the country. Citizens have high expectations and are becoming impatient with what they see as the slow pace of reform. The youth who played a significant role in the Jasmine Revolution already feel left behind. The average Tunisian is more focused on issues such as the struggling economy, jobs, security, and corruption rather than the Constitution. However, the Constitution will determine important issues about Tunisia's future, including the type of political system (a parliamentary or presidential system) and the relationship between religion and the state. Many are concerned about women's rights.
Tunisian women enjoy greater rights than elsewhere in the region, although their status lags behind that of women worldwide. They have gained many of their rights through presidential initiatives. For example, in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba drafted the Code of Personal Status, which redefined the relationships between men and women in the family, by providing women greater rights in the realms of marriage, divorce, and child custody; it abolished polygamy. Because Tunisia's presidents emphasized education, over 94 percent of Tunisian girls aged 15 to 24 are literate. While the political parties have pledged to keep the current laws that respect women's rights in place, not all are convinced that will be the case.
Now the real work begins. Tunisians face tremendous opportunities and challenges as they work to make the ideals of the Jasmine Revolution a reality.
Katie Zoglin is a lawyer from Mountain View. She recently traveled to Tunisia to serve as an international election observer with the Carter Center. She has overseen democracy promotion and rule of law projects in the Middle East and North Africa. The views expressed in this piece are her own.