As Tunisia gears up for its first democratic elections in more than 20 years on Sunday, Nouri Gana will depart from Los Angeles today to fly to his home country and cast his vote.
Gana, a professor of comparative literature at UCLA, said he feels a mix of excitement and apprehension about the upcoming elections. The Oct. 23 vote will determine Tunisia's democratic future following the end of the 23-year rule of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Ben Ali was removed from power in January after months of popular uprisings.
Within the same month, an interim government took control of Tunisia – and has since drawn criticism internationally for maintaining ties to Ben Ali, and for its authoritarian tendencies.
Gana said he is concerned about the transparency of the elections. He said he worries that the interim government could attempt to falsify the results. If all goes well, however, he said he expects the voice of Tunisian voters to be loud and clear.
"If the elections and the votes are not falsified or rigged or what have you, I think the Tunisian people will say their word, and say it decisively," Gana said.
There are 7.5 million Tunisians eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, which will select a new constituent assembly to write the country's new constitution and select an interim president.
Gana himself has actively participated in protests in the country. In August, he joined a demonstration in the city of Tunis against Tunisia's interim government. Government security forces teargassed him and his fellow protesters, he said.
The demonstration was meant to protest the continuation of authoritarian policies under the temporary government. What remains unclear moving forward is the role religion will play in Tunisia's new government, said James Gelvin, professor of history who specializes in Middle Eastern history.
Although more than 105 parties have registered in the elections, only a few have garnered widespread support. Among them is Ennahda, an Islamic political party, widely held to be a forerunner.
Ennahda has raised eyebrows in Western media outlets for its religious leanings, Gana said. But both Gana and Gelvin said the religion is not central to the party's goals.
"(Ennahda) pledged itself to the democratic process, and has said that it would function within a parliamentary system," Gelvin said. "We have no reason not to take them at their word."
Whether a party represents the democratic ideals of the revolution will be reflected in their success in the elections, said Asli Bali, a UCLA law professor who specializes in comparative law of the Middle East. She added that the true test of the democracy's legitimacy will be if the Tunisians can vote a party out of office if it fails to follow through with its promises.
Gelvin said the Tunisian election will set an important precedent for other countries that underwent revolutions during the Arab Spring. Tunisia itself, however, is unlikely to yield major changes in the country's infrastructure, he said.
Tunisia is already developed in its bureaucracy and military, both of which will probably not be affected by the election, Gelvin said. This is less the case in Yemen and Libya, both of which have undergone their own revolutions and are building from the ground up, he said.
Bali said she is "cautiously optimistic" about the Tunisian elections. She said the fact that the elections are happening under the eye of the international community is a positive sign. Tunisia is a model example of what a peaceful transition after a long-term military rule should look like, she added.
Gana said he is looking forward to helping mark a point in Tunisian history and participate in an event he anticipates could have global impact.
"Whatever happens in Tunisia does not stay in Tunisia," said Gana. "It will affect the world."