I celebrated two birthdays this past weekend, first my own biological birthday and then the political birth of the modern Arab world Sunday, when Tunisians voted for their new 217-seat national assembly, or provisional parliament.
Human birthdays occur every year, but the birth of the modern Arab world happens once in a lifetime, and it is exhilarating to watch the process unfold day by day.
The significance and symbolism of the Tunisian election cannot be over-emphasized. Tunisia was the first country to initiate the citizen revolts and popular revolutions that overthrew the decrepit old corrupt regimes and their endless police states, starting with the removal of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January; now Tunisia again shows the way for the Arab world by holding the first genuinely free and fair election in the modern Arab world that also ushers in a relegitimized governance system anchored in the consent of the governed.
The new assembly will draft a constitution and select an interim president, who in turn will choose a new government – one that is accountable to a credible assembly that was freely elected by the citizenry, with all political parties allowed to compete equally. This has happened in just nine months, with virtually no violence or bloodshed, showing a combination of sophistication and diligence that should surprise no one who knows the people of the Arab world.
All we needed in our region was an opportunity for one country to do this, to organize and hold an election in which all ideological currents had a chance to participate on an equal footing. Tunisians created that opportunity for themselves, and performed valiantly in bringing their country to this point of historic transformation.
The election Sunday marks the crucial turning point from the old to the new, from the citizen revolt against the old order to the rebuilding of credible and legitimate new state institutions.
That process will take a few years at least, as a new constitution is written and ratified, then new elections are held for a regular parliament, and scores of new political parties and civic organizations form and mature. Over 100 parties competed in these elections, indicating the thirst for political participation among a people who had been denied it for many decades.
There is already much discussion of the implications of the Islamist party Ennahda winning the most votes, and the possible coalitions it may form with other leading vote-getters, such as the secular leftist parties, the Congress Party for the Republic and Ettakol, or the center-left Progressive Democratic Party.
The emphasis on the American and other Western media on Ennahda’s performance is understandable, in foreign lands where Islamists are feared in large part because they are not known. Ennahda and its coalition partners will now be subjected to the greatest test that any political group can experience: the accountability of incumbency.
They must deliver what the Tunisian electorate demands, in terms of economic growth, jobs, social justice, security and that long absent sense that this and other Arab governments exist to serve their people above all else. If the governing coalition delivers what the citizenry expects, it will be voted into power again and again, as we have witnessed in Turkey over the past decade.
The West, led by Israel and the United States, made a terrible mistake in 2006 when many countries refused to deal with Hamas after it won the election in Palestine. The same thing happened in 1992 when the FIS Islamist party won the elections but was barred from taking office due to an army coup, leading to a brutal civil war that saw nearly 200,000 Algerians killed. Now the world gets another chance to react more rationally to an Arab Islamist party that has won a free election and says it wants to strengthen Tunisia’s secular democratic system.
The really significant event Sunday in Tunisia was not the victory by Ennahda, but rather the triumph of the combined concepts of pluralistic electoral democracy, republicanism and constitutionalism.
The legitimizing factor that has made all this possible, in the span of just nine months since the overthrow of the dictator, has been the ongoing popular participation of hundreds of thousands of Tunisians, who followed up the initial removal of the former regime by repeatedly taking to the streets, the media, and the political space they opened up to demand that the core aims of the revolution be achieved.
This is the new and historic factor that many of us in the region have been pointing out for months, and that is now more evident: These historic transitions to more honorable, credible and accountable governance systems will succeed because an empowered, activist citizenry demands this, and will keep working to ensure that it happens.
Neither promises nor threats will prevent success. The twin core demands of the Arab citizen now being born across the region – social justice and genuine constitutional reforms – drive this ongoing process of historic rebirth. They set down their first roots in Tunisia last Sunday.
(Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star in Beirut, is one of the most widely read columnists internationally. This article first appeared in The Daily Star on Oct. 26, 2011)