Undergraduate and graduate students alike gathered on Wednesday evening to kick off the official meeting of the Arab Studies Table, a new interdisciplinary forum that aims to “be an opportunity to present research, debate issues on the Arab world and engage with outside speakers visiting Stanford.”
At the first meeting in Encina Hall, they weighed in on the origin, process and aftermath of democratic elections in Tunisia.
Katie Zoglin, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Stanford professor, chaired the event, which began with a brief discussion about Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. The revolution bloomed from the self-immolation of a Tunisian flower vendor and, in the months that followed, Tunisians utilized Facebook, Twitter and other social media to swiftly upheave the government of Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Zoglin, who observed the Tunisian electoral process as an elections monitor for the Carter Center, cited the Tunisian revolution as the residue of “long-term grievances that had been long ignored.”
But the blithe atmosphere of a successful, liberating revolution was short-lived. According to Zoglin, although Tunisians initially found unity in revolution, they still encountered difficulties in establishing a new government. In the political vacuum created by the end of President Ben Ali’s 23-year regime, over 100 political parties vied for popular support in Tunisia.
On Oct. 23, Tunisians overcame political divisiveness to cultivate a much more peaceable product of the Arab Spring: national, democratic elections. Instructional voting posters, the location of polls in readily accessible domestic areas such as schools and government funding of political parties all contributed to a remarkable 70 percent voter turnout.
“[Tunisians] know that other countries look to them as an example, and . . . are very cognizant of [their] role [as leaders of the Arab Spring],” Zoglin said.
In spite of the recent elections, participants of the Arab Study Table pointed out a number of key problems with the electoral process.
First, Tunisian elections faltered in the wake of poorly implemented voter registration. While organizing elections, Tunisian officials did not effectively advertise voter registration opportunities. Likewise, a number of uniformed Tunisians were unable to register and the provisional government eventually responded by allowing any citizen to vote in his or her hometown upon displaying a national identification card.
Second, the large number of political parties stifled voters and encouraged Tunisians to base their votes on familiarity with parties rather than an understanding of them. In opposition to government campaign regulations, many parties bought votes and advertised in mosques, a term Zoglin referred to as “electioneering.”
“The weaknesses were all to be expected in the first round,” Zoglin said.
When the final votes were polled, the self-proclaimed Islamist moderate party Al-Nahda, emerged with 41 percent of the popular vote. Members of the table zeroed in on this result as potentially harmful to the legitimacy of Tunisia.
As opposed to the predominately male-dominated governments of many Arab nations, Tunisia is distinguished by an unshakeable protection of women’s rights.
“In Tunisia, there’s a lot of women in top ranks where a lot of power is,” Zoglin said.
Some participants expressed concern that Al- Nahda could corrupt Tunisia’s precedence of gender equality. In defense of Al-Nahda and Tunisia’s prospects, Zoglin countered that Al-Nahda officially declared to maintain women’s rights and that Tunisians strongly support equality.
Although Zoglin admitted that reason for concern remains, her hopes reflected her greater optimism regarding Tunisia’s future.
“It has a lot of challenges ahead, but I have a lot of hope for Tunisia,” Zoglin said.