TUNIS – On December 21, Tunisia completed a remarkable democratic transfer of power, with the election of Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the secular political party Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia). As with the parliamentary election in October, the process of choosing a president was, for the most part, fair and free of violence.
For the moment, Tunisia is the only Arab Spring country that appears to be on a path to genuine democratic governance. Since the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the country has endured pressures from Islamic radicals, a deterioration of its economy, and a chaotic transitional period. But it has also written and adopted a new constitution structured to encourage the separation and balance of powers, and it seems on track to pull off a successful change in government.
Tunisia is relatively homogeneous ethnically and lacks sharp sectarian divisions; nonetheless, owing partly to its porous borders with Algeria and Libya, the specter of violence is always present. Indeed, the issue of security dominated both the parliamentary and presidential elections, with all sides claiming to be the best qualified to counter extremism. Lurking in the background of the presidential election was fear in some quarters that a victory by Nidaa Tounes, which won a plurality in parliament, might mean a return to authoritarian rule.
Given concerns about security and the fate of the democratic transition, economic issues were essentially put on hold in both elections. Now it is time for Tunisia’s leaders to put the economy at the top of their agenda.