Pantin, Paris suburb, 21-23 november 2011.
This week-end I was one of the 21389 observers deployed for the 2014 Tunisian presidential elections, or shall I say, the first free presidential elections in Tunisia’s history. I was representing ATIDE, the Tunisian Association for Integrity and Democracy in the Elections, and observed the electoral process in one of the 79 voting centers set up in France. My observation center was Pantin (center 35), northern suburb of Paris, and I supervised a team of 5 ATIDE observers for 4 polls during those 3 historical days.
In Tunisia, the electors were invited to vote on Sunday, 23rd of November. Abroad, the polls opened on Friday morning, 8:00 am.
The first morning was filled with excitement and anxiety. How will it go? Will people come and vote? Will the organization be good, and will the members of the voting center be cooperative? Will this week-end be peaceful and smooth, or will there be troubles?
The voting center was located in a gymnasium, wide open space – not a single area was hidden to the eyes of all (except for the voting booth of course). I was there among the first people setting up the polling stations, 7:15 am. A calm tension was palpable. Obviously I was not the only one feeling excited and anxious. A couple of other national observers were present as well. The members of the High Independent Instance for the Elections (ISIE) in charge of organizing this electoral week end were buzzing around the center, setting up voting booths, tables, chairs, posters explaining the voting process and legislation, signs showing the way out and others informing that the use of phones and other photographic devices was not allowed inside. At the same time everyone was welcoming and cheerful, offering us a very much needed cup of coffee or some croissant and pain au chocolat. The wonders of Tunisian hospitality with a french touch.
8:00 am, the voting center opens. The members of the polling station are extremely professional. The observers are invited to witness every stage of the procedure. The urn is perfectly empty. The tracking numbers of the seals are noted down. The urn is sealed. The packs of empty ballots are counted. Every time a new pack is opened, the voting papers are counted in our presence. There are already a few citizens waiting to make their voice count. Five or six people. The morning starts slowly. All goes smoothly.
Over the week-end, some incidents happen. On the third day, an elector warned me about a person working in an other voting center giving voting indications to vulnerable citizens – understand old persons not knowing for whom to vote and asking advice. The person asked did not seem to understand that he was not supposed to answer. Another time, a little over-zealous voting station’s president wanted to assess his authority over the entire center, he eventually stuck back to his position. Now and then a few lost citizens, not able to vote because they did not register and did not understand why they were not allowed to vote.
There were also beautiful moments, reminding you that these elections are historical. An aged man, who could barely walk and had eyesight problems came by himself to vote. The members of the voting station set a chair for him at the booth so he could take all the time he needed to decipher the ballot and make his decision. He told us afterwards that he had to come, as it might be his only chance to practice his right to vote in his life. A woman, 54 years old told me that she came to vote for the first time of her life, because for the first time her voice counted. In an another center, a man with both arms amputated insisted on voting by himself without help. He used his feet. He claimed dignity and independence. People brought their young kids, stating that they came to vote today for the future of their children. Another man came in our center proudly waving the Tunisian flag. After he put his ballot in the urn he shouted ‘Tahya Tounes’: ‘long live Tunisia’.
To all those who do not believe it, this is democracy. People expressing their opinion. People proud to exercise their right to vote. People realizing the value of this right to vote, because they have been kept silent for so long.
The great missing in this wonderful electoral week-end was Youth. The Tunisian youth, so great in number does not seem to be really implicated in the democratic process. Or perhaps was not integrate enough in it. About 22% of the Tunisian population has between 18 and 29 years old, almost the forth of the population. However, from what I saw at the polls, most of the voters were aged 40 and plus.
Where is the Tunisian youth? What is certain is that while being the fresh strength of the Nation, they are not integrated in the process of building it, whether politically or economically.
Sunday, 6:00 pm the voting center closes its doors. Time for counting the ballots. But before that, all the procedures. The urn is sealed for one last ceremonial time. The members of the polling station reorganize the space for the counting. Empty tables in the middle where the urn is enthroned, a large panel on the side on which is fixed large pages with the names of all the candidates on columns. Chairs facing all of this, for us, observers. Another large table, that will be later used to put the counted ballots in piles. Everyone gets in place. Tension is more than palpable, it’s breathable. It is 7:15 pm, the urn is opened.
After about two hours and a half counting the ballots, it is done. It’s all done. The electoral week end, the tension, the anxiety, the exhaustion, the sleepless nights and the wait. The wait is over. Some might dare ‘all of this for that?’, well yes. All of this incredible work and dedication from thousands of people around Tunisia and abroad, uncountable hours of work and liters of coffee and tea for this: a smooth transparent and peaceful election.
Voters turn out in France Nord circumscription was 48,64% (almost same as for the legislatives – 48,37%). The exiting president, Moncef Marzouki is leading with 41,93%, followed by the leader of right wing democrats party Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caïd Essebsi with 37,50%. The third man is Hama El Hammami, leader of the left wing party Front Populaire with 11,00% of the expressed votes.*
In Tunisia and abroad, voters turn out was 62,91%. Beji Caïd Essebsi leads the first round with 39,46% of the votes, followed by Moncef Marzouki with 33,43%. The third man is behind with 7,82% of the expressed voices.
Today we are still waiting for the date of the second round, as some legal actions have been introduced (and retracted) concerning certain polling stations. The High Independent Instance for the Elections should communicate a date in the coming days. We are waiting. After 23 years of dictatorship, patience is a Tunisian virtue.
14 January 2011 17 December 2010. – Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire, the Tunisian Revolution is en route. His answer to years of police bullying, racket, and administrative abuse. He only wanted to sell his vegetables in the street in order to feed his own family. In Sidi Bouzid people are angry. Enough is enough. Protests start. First there, then the movement spreads quickly, enhanced by social media calls, and soon it hits the capital. A caravan that left from Sidi Bouzid rallies Tunis, gathering thousands of people on the way.
13 January 2011. – The infamous ‘Fhemtkom’ speech of Ben Ali – ‘I understood you’. Not sure what he understood, but whatever it was, it only made the people madder.
14 January 2011. 18h43 – A friend calls me. “He fled! He fled! He fled’ cries the hysterical voice on the phone. Everyone is astonished. 23 years of dictatorship and 27 days to end it. The first stone of what has since then been called the Arab Spring was set. It is winter in Tunisia, Jasmine has not yet bloomed, and the country is flooded with exhilarating emotion. One thought is in every mind : WE DID IT.
Since that crucial day of January 14, a lot happened. The Arab World fell in turmoil. Egypt on the 25th of January, Yemen on the 27th, Libya on the 17th of February, Morocco on the 20th, then Syria tears itself apart… And this list is not exhaustive of all the places that breathed the intoxicating scent of jasmine.
As pointed out by Duncan Pickard in his excellent article Tunisia’s elections: a test of commitment from Oct. 20th, 2014, Tunisia has gone through at least six peaceful transfer of power since the revolution. While other countries fell into civil wars and military coup, Tunisia remained peaceful.
Of course the country had its own challenges to face. Two political assassinations, two great figures of the opposition fell – Chokri Belaïd, shot in front of his house the morning of the 6th February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi, five months later, also shot outside his home in front of wife and children on the 25th of July. Countless protests. Slow economy. Security issues. Apparition of terrorist groups. Political uncertainties. But we had and still have hope. And an unshakable love for the Tunisian Nation, that seems to be the element never taken into account by foreign political analysis on the future of the country.
There were also historical moments. On the 23rd of October 2011, Tunisia held the first free democratic elections of its young history, to elect a Constitutional National Assembly (ANC in French for Assemblée Nationale Constituante). A wave of emotions, happiness and pride overwhelmed the country. The outcome of the scrutiny unsettled some. The Islamist party Ennahdha won the elections with 37,04% of the votes. What people tend to forget was that 62,96% of the ANC was not religious, there were democrats, republicans, socialists, liberals, secular groups. This and the natural pragmatism of Tunisians resulted on reaching consensus after heated debates on social questions mainly. Three years later, on the 26th of January, 2014, the new Constitution is enacted and it is today the most progressive and human rights protective constitution of the Arab World.
Yesterday, Sunday Oct. 26th 2014, another historical moment in the consolidation of democracy, a test in the eyes of the world of this newly acquired political freedom. The second free elections, this time in order to elect the members of the National Assembly. Will Tunisians convert the try? Or will they collapse like their neighbors and other sister Arab Nations did? Will they remain peaceful, a peace that was questioned because the Tunisian nation was not following the path that everyone else took? Will everyone play the democratic game by the rules?
All foreign analysis on Tunisia few days before the elections were negative, skeptical at best. To cite an example, the New York Times published three negative and quite biased articles in a row, such as Carlotta Gall’s ‘At birthplace of the Arab Spring, discontent opens a door to the past‘ or David Kirkpatrick’s ‘New Freedoms in Tunisia drive Support for ISIS‘ – the title itself tells a lot on the writer’s conflict here. In a way, it is understandable. Tunisia is the exception of the Arab Spring. In terms of political developments, but also in terms of society, population and culture. It is a society that has more depth and is more complex than what international analysts know of. Very few actually took the time to make proper research and study on the country. Most come for a few days, perhaps few weeks, missions to cover one topic specifically. This gives a limited vision on the country. Thankfully there are still excellent authors such as my good friend Monica Marks, who lately denounced the narrow vision of international media on Tunisian politics in this very good article, ‘Beyond Islamism vs. secularism, towards new coalitions?‘.
Yesterday I was a national observer for the elections in a polling station in Aubervilliers, France, a northern suburb of Paris. I witnessed the electoral process from A to Z for the Tunisian citizens living abroad. There have been a few incidents, all concerning people that did not find their names on the lists, hence were not able to vote. This seems to have been the case for all polling stations abroad, but not in Tunisia. Apart from that, I witnessed a very well organized election procedure. The officers of the polling station were all extremely professional and following the rules of transparency to the point where the vote counting had a theatrical aspect. When we had the results, people of all parties, political and non-political, congratulated each others for the great work we put together during this electoral marathon. People were simply plain happy about the peaceful outcome.
I also witnessed the incredible emotions emanating from voters when entering the polls during the day. People were happy, people were smiling, I saw tears. People were proud to vote. A friend in Strasbourg, responsible for a polling station had a citizen coming to exercise his right to vote by himself : both his arms were amputated. He insisted that he did not need help, he used his feet to tick a box and fold the paper. People took flights to be able to vote in the polling station they were registered at. Newly weds went to vote with their wedding dresses. A 105 years old woman went to the polls and voted. A man had a suit made out of the Tunisian flag specially for voting day. Tears, smiles, in Tunis people were hugging strangers in the streets, overwhelmed by the emotions. In Tunisia, politics divide and elections unite. The sens of nationhood is great. At the end of the day, 51,8% of registered people voted. Not as much as in 2011. The youth was notably absent. However the people that did vote – and that is about 3 million people – were deeply convinced of the importance of this right. The right to vote. The right to express an opinion. People were kept quiet for too long, and they will never let anyone take their voices away anymore. This is what outsiders don’t take into account. This is why I will always stay positive when it comes to Tunisia’s future.
I believe in this Nation, and I am not the only one.
If Tunisia is great at something, it is at surprising the world – and itself at the same time. When Hannibal marched on Rome with his elephants, when lady Kahena stopped the Arab invasions, when abolishing slavery in 1842, when granting women the right of abortion in 1972, when being the spark and the beacon of hope of the Arab Spring. We surprised the world in 2011, in 2013, and we do it again today. Will the world finally understand: Tunisia does not follow paths, Tunisia makes its own path.