The course of the Arab Spring, hailed with such euphoria in the early weeks of the year, was never going to run as smoothly as its most enthusiastic supporters hoped. But the sharp contrasts of recent days have provided as many reasons for optimism as for pessimism, along with warnings against rushing to judgement.
Tunisia has held its first free election, for an assembly that will draft the country's new constitution. In scenes reminiscent of so many countries newly initiated into electoral democracy, voters queued patiently for hours and polling had to be extended. Beside the evident joy, there was an air of gravitas that spoke of people wanting to take responsibility for their own future. The turn-out was given as 90 per cent of registered voters – a huge proportion by any standards.
Next door in Libya, meanwhile, they were starting to clear up and take stock after an uprising and civil war that was declared over only when Muammar Gaddafi was killed outside Sirte. He had vowed to fight to the end, and he did just that. Whereas Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled into exile before widespread violence gripped his country, Gaddafi denied his country a relatively peaceful transition.
And while wild jubilation marked an official day of liberation this weekend, Gaddafi's death prompted discord among Libya's new leaders. With the customary 24 hours allowed for interment long passed and a post-mortem examination conducted under UN auspices complete, there was still no agreement about what should happen to his body. Moves appeared to be afoot to return it to his family, but any burial site risks being as contentious as the fate of the body has already become, inviting pilgrimage and desecration.
Granted, the National Transitional Council had a war on its hands, but it still seems improvident that it apparently had no contingency plans for the eventuality of his death. And the longer the controversy drags on, the more questions will inevitably be asked: about the circumstances and manner of his demise, and about the competence of the NTC to govern.
The uncertain fate of Gaddafi's body is not the only obstacle delaying the inauguration of a new Libya. The US-based group Human Rights Watch reported yesterday that the bodies of more than 50 people, described as Gaddafi loyalists, had been found in the grounds of a hotel in Sirte, bound and shot. As the war for Libya raged, there were periodic reports of atrocities committed by both sides. One test for the new government will be how it addresses the accusations that its supporters, too, committed crimes. History may be written by the victors, but those who now wield power will not inspire confidence, at home or abroad, if they turn a blind eye to allegations against their own fighters and blame only the other side.
Born in blood, and accelerated into being by help from outside, the new Libya is likely to find its path to modern statehood harsher and more problematic than, say, Tunisia or even Egypt. But it would be premature to pronounce the revolutions in either country secure. After many delays, Egypt is planning its first post-Mubarak elections, for a new parliament, next month. And Tunisia, though smaller, more cohesive and one step ahead in electoral terms, has also still to face some of its own contradictions.
As in Egypt, an Islamic party is expected to top the poll, without winning an overall majority. What models these parties look to, and how they handle their legitimate share of power, will determine the future of these countries and how easily they take their place in the wider world. As the first country of the Arab Spring to hold a successful election, Tunisia is a pioneer. What has happened so far is promising, but it is only a start.
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