Will Tunisian Elections Spark Democracy for the Arab World?

I-know-I-can, I-know-I-can ... Forget Thomas the Tank Engine, nine months after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia is once again proving it is the little country that could.

On the heels of the death of Gaddafi, Tunisia's elections are another – and even more momentous – validation for the hopes of an entire region desperate for a positive affirmation that the Arab Spring will bring about a better and more democratic future.

For the first time since the end of the colonial era after WWII, free and fair elections devoid of foreign influence have been held in an Arab country unmarred by violence and outside interference.

There have been other elections in the Arab world that have produced variations of democratic results. Long considered the most democratically-attuned country in the Middle East, the Lebanese have voted in numerous elections since their independence 1943. In the eight years after Sadaam, Iraqis have cast their votes twice in 2005 and 2009. In 2006, Hamas swept to power in Gaza after the Palestinian people made their voices heard.

But with all due respect to those who participated in these other elections, what happened Sunday in Tunis was unprecedented in the history of the region, producing a result that was a powerful and uplifting ray of hope for millions of revolutionaries still struggling under the violence and oppression of Arab authoritarians. Unlike in Lebanon, where the parliamentary system is determined by religion, Gaza, which is only a small enclave of the greater occupied territories, or Iraq, whose elections were the direct result of the American invasion, yesterday's vote in Tunisia was the first nationally accepted election bereft of foreign influence with no preconditions in an Arab country.

Tunisia has again provided champions of democracy with a spark by proving that the small afterthought of a country could once more lead the way after successfully making due on their promise of holding the region's first completely democratic elections.

Being able to make sense of the 11,000 candidates representing 80 political parties on the ballot in only nine months since the revolution without any violence, disturbances, or controversy was an already tall order. 

Having no democratic precedent in the country nor the region and having lived under the authoritarian rule of former dictator Ben Ali for 24 years, makes this accomplishment all the more remarkable. 

Of course, the elections are only the beginning of a long and complicated process. A governing coalition and cabinet must be formed and a constitution drafted, but Tunisia's elections are the first step in legitimizing the millions of Arabs (and others) who believe their revolutions can and will bring about a positive change. 

All summer, the revolutionary momentum has been lagging. In Egypt, the military has moved to consolidate power. In Syria, opposition has so far been unable to break the growing stalemate. In Bahrain, the government has continued its violent crackdown. Yemen hasn't fared any better and remains teetering on the verge of civil war.

Corrupt regimes are using violence to stifle the sense of hope and crush the spirit of rebellion.

Following Gaddafi's demise and now the elections in Tunis, an air of conviction and ambition has returned. Tunisian elections have restored a sense of belief and purpose to those who months before may have begun to despair.

You can hear it from my Egyptian friends who say 'Like with the revolution, democracy comes first in Tunisia then in Egypt" and you can hear it from John McCain who believes "Tunisia can be a model for the region."

Moving forward we have no more knowledge of how Tunisia's elections will impact other revolutions than we do whether the now ruling Al-Nahda party will be successful in formulating a new ruling coalition. What Tunisians did make clear, however, is that Arabs are not only thirsty, but also ready for democracy.

As Barack Obama said when addressing the matter, Tunisia's revolution had "changed the course of history." That history is for the Tunisian people to decide.

Photo Credit: David Dietz