The Tunisian people in December 2010 sparked the popular movement that became known as the Arab spring and opened new horizons for freedom in the region. Now, on 23 October 2011, they completed a vital round of their nascent democracy by delivering Tunisia's first genuinely democratic and competitive elections since the country's independence in 1956.
This achievement belongs to Tunisians above all, but it is also a great occasion for democrats and supporters of democracy around the world. To see the long queues of Tunisians awaiting their chance to cast a vote for the future of democracy in their country is a delight and a source of hope. For many of these voters - young and old, women and men - this was the first occasion to express their real choice freely, in an orderly fashion and with no fear or intimidation.
The remarkably high turnout - up to an astonishing 90% of the electorate in many areas, according to official data released by the electoral authorities - is a clear indicator of the Tunisian people’s thirst for dignity, and their determined will to build a democratic society. It is notable here that some waiting voters protested against an attempt by the head of one leading political party to bypass the queue by using a common expression from the days of revolution: "Dégage!" In calling him back to join the queue, they were also affirming something profound about equality of citizenship. That is where democracy starts.
This exceptional expression of "civism" in Tunisia also represents a clear signal of the real objectives of the Arab uprisings at large. This is a region that has suffered from long decades of dictatorships, oppression and injustice. Now, a new generation is crying out "enough" - and voicing to the entire world that it also deserves a chance to join the ever increasing community of democratic nations. The success of the elections in Tunisia is undeniable evidence of the popular will underlying the peaceful demands sweeping the Arab world for freedom and democracy.
The next task
The newly elected constituent assembly will now face the task of delivering what could be the Arab world's pioneering democratic constitution, to be developed by a legitimate and representative body. The unquestioned legitimacy of the assembly, regardless of the exact balance of seats between the various parties, ensures that large parts of Tunisian society will feel directly included and involved in its work.
The participation of such a big number of political parties and forces also shows the exceptional levels of expectation that the Tunisian people and its emerging elites have in these elections - albeit this very diversity also represents a technical challenge for both voters and the Instance Supérieure Independante pour les Elections (ISIE, the independent electoral management body).
What now remains to be seen is the ability of all parties, in principle and in practice, peacefully to accept the results; and especially of those in the lead to take the responsibility of respecting and building on the evident political diversity of Tunisian society. The elected constituent assembly needs to ensure that the constitutional process continues to be as inclusive and participatory as the elections have been, beyond the actual electoral results; and to benefit from the input and contributions of all Tunisians, both winners and losers of these elections.
Tunisia's elections also have a vital regional dimension. Egyptians and now Libyans have been able to topple their dictatorships, while Syrians and Yemenis (among others) are continuing their struggle for freedom. Many in both categories may see in Tunisia's elections an additional sign of hope, for these offer tangible evidence that the path to democracy is a viable one - confirming that democracy is possible here and now.
In their procedures and processes too, the elections should provide relevant lessons that can be used in the actual or potential democratic transitions of other Arab countries. The coincidence that the elections came on the same day as National Transitional Council's declaration that Libya was at last fully liberated from Gaddafi´s rule is a further positive symbolic augury.
It is important to remember amid the celebration that elections only constitute one pillar, however fundamental, of the democratic "construct". Indeed, democracy-building is a long-term process that involves much more than elections alone. The creation of a society based on the rule of law, toleration of different views, freedom of the press and media, and the integrity and accountability of public institutions are also vital components. The successful step in the right direction that the elections represent should encourage movement towards the full accomplishment of these goals.
Tunisians have made a giant leap towards democracy. The tyrannical regimes that continue to resist their society's demands, such as Syria and Yemen, should see in it a clinching argument that there is no force on earth able of defying an awakened people's call for freedom, justice and dignity.