A guide to watching Arab elections

Any hope of the Arab world embracing democracy has long focused on its most populous country, Egypt. Yet despite a burst of freedom after the 2011 Arab Spring, Egypt again dashed those hopes this week in a sham election designed to keep military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power.

The one opposition figure allowed to run in the March 26-28 election barely campaigned. Only about 40 percent of voters, who were largely ordered to go to the polls, cast a ballot. The mirage of democracy was easy to see through.

To be sure, Mr. Sisi remains popular for ousting the other extreme on the political spectrum from his own secular authoritarianism. In 2013, he lead a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who was duly elected but quickly started coercing democratic opponents.

The Middle East can’t seem to shake its three governing models: nationalist dictators, reigning monarchs, and radical Islamists. But notice this. All three have something in common: the denial of the liberty of conscience. All three believe it their sole right to determine which, if any, of its opponents can participate in governance.

To really track progress in Arab politics, it is far better to focus on Tunisia. For three years after ousting a dictator in the Arab Spring, Tunisians held a public debate while crafting a new constitution. The most difficult part was defining liberty of conscience. No Arab constitution until then included such a phrase.

Many Islamists in Tunisia as well as the elite remnants of the former dictatorship opposed the notion of individual freedom in faith, speech, and other areas of life. Nonetheless, the idea was enshrined in the 2014 Constitution. And it has begun to sink into the thinking of this largely Muslim country in North Africa.

On May 6, Tunisia will hold its first municipal elections since the Arab Spring. The campaign has yet to officially start. Yet the enthusiasm is hard to miss. In the one Arab country that most firmly embraces individual rights, more than 57,000 people have signed up to run for offices in 350 cities and towns.

By law, political parties must include candidates from three groups: women, youth, and those with disabilities. As a result, nearly 50 percent of those running are women, while more than 50 percent are under the age of 35. One in 10 has a disability. But what really surprised observers was the high number of independents. That is viewed as a sign of disgust among youth toward traditional parties as well as frustration over a stagnant economy.

Such a breadth of representation speaks to Tunisians’ understanding of the liberty of conscience. “Religion should not divide the society,” says Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist party. In 2016 he announced his party, Ennahda, would separate political and religious activities.

After the local elections, the central government is expected to take up a bill that would grant more powers to municipalities. Tunisia could be about to see a new flourishing of its democracy, which would serve even more as an example for the region. Other Arab nations such as Egypt do not deserve as much fawning attention to their politics. At least not until they adhere to freedom of conscience.

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