Adrian Hamilton: A symbolic vote for the Middle East


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The Tunisian uprising happened so fast and the overthrow of the regime in January came so quickly that it is easy, as it goes for elections this Sunday, to take it for granted, a footnote of calm in a chapter of violence and suppression which has marked its neighbours to the west and east.

But it hasn't been that easy and to assume that it has is to underestimate both the courage of those who revolted in the first place and the challenges which still face the country. President Ben-Ali didn't give up without a struggle any more than Colonel Gaddafi, President al-Assad or any of the other rulers of the Middle East. That he didn't succeed was due to the fact that he didn't have a large enough security force to face down the protests once they spread and the regular army refused to fire on their own people.

That has not made the course of revolution since any more comfortable. The West tended to see the Arab Spring in its own image – as the overthrow of tyrants in the interests of democracy.

The Tunisian uprising started with the self-immolation of a poor street vendor abused by the police and stopped from earning his living by the civil authorities. It spread because his plight reverberated with the large majority of the population.

You can overthrow a government but replacing a system is not that simple. Within weeks of the overthrow of Ben Ali the public had taken to the streets again to remove the succeeding government. Since then there have been a succession of street protests and riots as people have complained at the lack of progress in bringing change and jobs, and as groups of every sort have struggled to find a place in the vacuum of power.

In the Arab context, this Sunday's election is a huge step forward. The interim government, prompted partly by Western pressure, has been assiduous in its attempts to make it as genuinely democratic as possible. There has been a determined effort at voter registration among Tunisians abroad as at home.

Even so only 55 per cent of the adult population has registered and, with some 11,000 candidates in 81 parties, competing for 217 seats of an assembly tasked with drawing up a constitution and appointing a government, the opportunities for confusion and factional strife are legion. On a pitch without ground rules, it has been the Islamic parties with their stronger grassroots organisation, which have gained the most support, and the secularist traditional parties of left and right which have looked most fragmented. To most ordinary Tunisians the test of the uprising is whether it improves their lot or not, and Tunisia, like all its neighbours, is a long way from being able to ensure that.

This is not to gainsay the importance of this election. It is a moment when Tunisians of all hues can take control of their own destiny. If it succeeds the election will have huge symbolic importance for other countries in the Middle East. But for the West, and in particular Europe, the best we can do is not to trumpet about democracy but seek practical ways to help Tunisians achieve a better life.

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