Tunisians Vote for the First Time

Within a couple of days of the demise of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime in Libya, Libya’s northern African neighbour Tunisia held the first democratic general election in the nation’s history. The weekend elections were significant given that Tunisia is the birthplace of a movement that has come to be known as the Arab Spring. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, is expected to be the winner when official results are announced on Tuesday.

Whatever the result of the election, the legacy of the Arab Spring is already in question. Prominent blogger Lina Ben Mhenni wrote before the election that she would boycott it on the grounds that the revolution has already been hijacked by remnants of the old regime. “After a few weeks of revolutionary euphoria,” she wrote, “Tunisia is once again a police state.” Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s death without trial has raised concerns from blogger and Oxford scholar Tariq Ramadan that the new Libyan regime may prove no less heedless of the rule of law than its predecessor: “the coming months and years will show whether we have witnessed a revolution in the region or a cynical redistribution of alliances.”

Recent demonstrations against anti-Coptic violence in Cairo’s Tahrir Square turned bloody, claiming the lives of 26 demonstrators. Even before events took a tragic turn, claims circulated that, while Hosni Mubarak may be gone, the army is still in charge and may cut a power-sharing deal with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood: “Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution,” wrote Slavoj Žižek in the London Review of Books, “a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony.”

Last Thursday at the Arts Centre, the Wheeler Centre hosted a panel discussion on the Arab Spring in partnership with the Melbourne Festival. Dr Robert Bowker, an academic and former Australian diplomat with postings in the Middle East, reminded the audience that it would take five to ten years for the legacy of the Arab Spring to become fully manifest, and that until then there would be trying times.

Video and audio of last week’s Arab Spring event will be published in coming days.