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Tunisia votes

October 26, 2011

Tunisians participated in their first free democratic elections on Sunday. It was a special day for human rights advocate Sihem Bensedrine, who discussed the unprecedented experience with DW.

Supporters of Islamist Ennahda party attend a announcement by members of their party to media at the party's headquarters in Tunis
Ennahda, advocates of political Islam, scored well in the pollsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Sihem Bensedrine is a former journalist and human rights activist who was once dubbed "The Iron Lady of the Tunisian opposition." She has spent time in prison for speaking out of turn against the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was ousted earlier this year. In 1998, she founded the National Council for Liberties, and she now heads up the Tunisian Center for Transitional Justice.

DW: These were the first free and fair elections since the fall of President Ben Ali; Sunday was truly historic for Tunisians. What did it mean to you as a Tunisian and a human rights advocate?

Sihem Bensedrine: I savored this wonderful event with other Tunisians, as we could freely vote for the first time. It was the first time we treated our ballots with respect and studied them closely. The people could freely formulate their desires for the first time. This is something that will impact on our future, something we have never experienced before. On Sunday, for the first time, Tunisian citizens felt like citizens of a real state.

Sihem Bensedrine
Bensedrine says the electorate will judge Ennahda in a new TunisiaImage: Sihem Bensedrine

Over 90 percent of those eligible made use of their right to vote. The results are pointing towards a clear win for the moderate Islamic party Ennahda (Renaissance) with over 30 percent of the vote. Did Tunisians make the right decision?

Tunisians have spoken and we must all respect that. That's democracy. People who are not accepting this vote, who reject the people's decision, are effectively demanding that we ignore democracy in our country. The people have voted. If, as winners, Ennahda do not keep their promises and pledges - if they don't respect the rule of law, human rights and our hard-won democracy - then the people who brought them to power can topple them in the next elections. We would simply choose other political actors better able to implement the will of the people. But today, at the beginning of the process, it's far too early to pre-judge Ennahda. It would be a huge mistake to say they had failed at this stage. There is nothing that suggests that they will not govern in the way they promised.

Before the elections many parties spoke out against a coalition with the Ennahda movement. Will the party remain isolated and alone, so to speak, or are there groups that will be willing to ally with Ennahda in order to create a stable majority government?

They have no choice. Although Ennahda doesn't have an absolute majority in the constitutional council the group will play a decisive role. The new Tunisian constitution will be strongly influenced and partially written by Ennahda. But that doesn't mean they will carry out this process alone, there are other powers that will have to work with Ennahda and find a compromise for the future of Tunisia. All the major players from all political backgrounds will play a greater or lesser role in the formulation of the new constitution. To claim that the Islamic party will decide everything is a superficial and erroneous suggestion - one that has sadly been circulated in several countries in Europe. It's not right to say Ennahda will dominate the country; they are the strongest power, but they don't hold an absolute majority. We must remember that.

Let's take women as an example: You are a modern and liberal woman. Will this moderately Islamic party's victory have consequences for you and other Tunisian women?

The party spoke out very clearly on this issue on Monday, saying they had no intention to change any women's rights already attained. As yet I have no reason to believe that this is some kind of trick or political deception. Personally, I am not afraid - and not just because of this promise. I know my country and my fellow citizens very well. I am convinced that if any political actor were to try to question or undermine these advances, then we would take to the streets. No one can take away the rights we have already won.

Tunisian people helped initiate the "Arab Spring," the election was well-organized, the Tunisian people have spoken. And yet some European countries, like France, have voiced fears and concerns about these advocates of political Islam. Do you consider these fears to be justified?

In my opinion this was a campaign that sought to drive a wedge between Islamists and secular forces - a kind of polarization. In fact, it's exactly what President Ben Ali did for 23 years, portraying himself as the guardian against the threat of terror and Islamism. Everyone should learn a lesson from that.

Interviewer: Amine Bendrif / msh
Editor: Nicole Goebel