Nearly four years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled for his life when the first of the Arab Spring uprisings forced him from power. Most of his ministers were close on his heels, scurrying to save themselves in exile. Many of those who did not flee went into hiding or jail.

Several months later, Tunisia held its first competitive multi-party elections. In that vote, however, Tunisians did not have complete freedom of choice; all the top-level figures associated with Ben Ali’s toppled regime were banned from running—a short-term measure that was designed to protect the fragile new democracy from slipping back toward dictatorship.

On October 26, Tunisians will finally have a real and unrestricted choice at the polls. Several of the remnants of the Ben Ali system—former officials who were not imprisoned and have now come out of hiding—are on the ballot in the parliamentary election. And three former top-level Ben Ali­-era ministers will compete in presidential elections in late-November: Kemal Morjane, Mondher Znaidi, and Abderrahim Zouari. The sitting government gave them permission to run in the spirit of national reconciliation and inclusivity.

That decision might seem surprising. After all, in addition to keeping the state running, new democratic politicians must decide how to cope with the cobwebs of authoritarianism. They are inevitably eager to ensure not only that the dictator is removed, but also that members of the dictator’s regime are purged. But more often than not, purges are a serious mistake. As John Stuart Mill argued a century and a half ago, a free marketplace of ideas is necessary to allow citizens to separate good ideas from bad ones. As counterintuitive as it may seem, then, the inclusion in the upcoming election of Ben Ali­-era politicians—men who actively supported a ruthless dictatorship—is one of the most promising steps that Tunisia has taken to preserve its democracy so far.

If Ben Ali’s former ministers had been banned, they could have become a source of volatility—as symbols of political martyrdom to their followers. Banned candidates may also launch coups and civil wars, taking power with bullets after being excluded from the ballot box. (Côte d’Ivoire is a tragic and clear example.) By contrast, in Tunisia, three former Ben Ali ministers are going to freely stand as candidates—and lose, partly because they will split the vote and partly because most Tunisians do not want someone so closely affiliated with Ben Ali to return to power. And that will be a much more effective (and less destabilizing) way to cope with the old guard.

Purges that go too far are a grave risk to fragile democracies. Tunisians do not need to look far to see why. Just to Tunisia’s east, militants are tearing apart Libya in a series of feuds that were intensified by Libya’s Political Isolation Law, an attempt to rid the country of officials stained by their affiliation with deposed dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The problem, it turns out, is that any Libyan who worked in government in any capacity since 1969 is tainted by an affiliation with Gaddafi. As a result, purging those affiliated with his rule meant getting rid of nearly everyone who knew how to run the country.

Libya made enormous mistakes with its transitional purge, but those mistakes are nothing compared to the United States’ de-Baathification debacle in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The American-led authority in Iraq barred an estimated 100,000 members of Saddam’s party—including teachers, doctors, and professors—from participation in the country’s political life, simply because they were once employed by the authoritarian government. And so a generation of institutional know-how was wiped out with the stroke of L. Paul Bremer’s pen. That policy—combined with the decision to disband Iraq’s military and send men with guns home without a paycheck—goes a long way toward explaining why Iraq spiraled out of control.

With few exceptions, Tunisia has avoided similar mistakes. Instead, the country has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion. For one, none of the major institutional organs of Ben Ali’s state—including the military—was excised or disbanded. Instead, each was reformed and molded to respond to Tunisia’s new and democratically elected government.

That same restraint stopped Tunisia from making the mistake of blindly purging politicians and bureaucrats with considerable expertise. In 2011, a commission led by the respected jurist Yadh Ben Achour ruled that ministerial-level politicians under Ben Ali’s regime should be disqualified from the country’s first democratic elections, but not from future participation in public life or politics. This decision coincided with the disbanding of Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, but did not prohibit former members of the party from contesting future elections.

The commission went too far in only one respect, namely, its ruling to disqualify the so-called Mounachidines, a list of people who had publicly signed a letter prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring that called for Ben Ali to run for reelection. Some of the people on the list were genuine supporters of the dictatorship; others simply signed their names because they feared the consequences of being absent from it. If, for example, a university president did not demonstrate his or her support for the regime publicly, he or she could reasonably expect to be replaced (or worse). The difference between genuine support and support out of fear is a critical one, and successful transitions must recognize it. In 2011, this overzealousness had limited effects because the Revolution had just occurred and public opinion overwhelming backed the decision; repeating the mistake this year, however, could have been disastrous.

In short, there have been bumps along the way—and there are several serious potential political roadblocks that lurk ahead—but, so far, Tunisia is paving a much smoother road to democracy than its collapsing Arab Spring counterparts. And it deserves all the more credit for its response, given that this was the first time the country had ever thrown off the shackles of a longstanding and brutal dictatorship in order to build a fledgling democracy.

This month’s elections are thus both a celebration of Tunisia’s success and a crucial test. Throughout 2013, hardline Islamists (including conservative members of Tunisia’s big-tent Islamist party, Ennahda, and their further-right counterparts, the Wafa Movement) proposed to renew the directive that disqualified the Mounachidine and banned from standing for election anyone who had served in Ben Ali’s government. When it came to a vote in May, though, the legislation was rejected—even with the Mounachidine provision stripped from the final proposal.

Polls suggest that the Islamist coalition, Ennahda, is most likely to win the parliamentary vote, but that the presidency will most likely be captured by the secular 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister of foreign affairs for Ben Ali’s predecessor who also served as the interim prime minister of Tunisia after Ben Ali fled the country in early 2011. Essebsi does have some ties to Ben Ali (he served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies for a year in the early 1990s), but he is not considered a close ally of the deposed strongman. His age may prove to be an issue, but he is a competent leader who is neither a staunch defender of Ben Ali nor a zealous secularist unwilling to compromise with the country’s moderate Islamists. It would have been a shame, in other words, to disqualify him.

Tunisia still faces tremendous challenges, including spillover violence from Libya, terrorism from Ansar al-Sharia, and the threat of destabilizing post-election disputes. And, for the first time since 2011, more than half of all Tunisians said in a recent poll that they would prefer a stable, prosperous, authoritarian government over an unstable, insecure democracy, reflecting concerns regarding the country’s ongoing economic woes. But Tunisia is nonetheless the last Arab Spring democracy still standing. Other transitioning regimes in the Middle East and the world should take note: Democracy is not about exclusion, but about giving people a genuine choice—even, or especially, when it’s an uncomfortable one.

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  • BRIAN KLAAS is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford focusing on democratic transitions and political exclusion in elections. MARCEL DIRSUS is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kiel focusing on political purges in democratic transitions.
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