Tunisian voters in Montreal help complete 2011 revolution

Federal government grants exception to foreign elections policy

This past weekend, roughly 10,000 Tunisians lined up in Montreal and Ottawa to vote for the first time since the country successfully ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali nine months ago. The ouster sparked similar revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East.

While approximately 90 per cent of Tunisians residing in Tunisia turned out to vote, the Tunisian diaspora around the world also organized itself to participate in the election. Outside of Tunisia, the Instance régionale indépendante pour les élections des Tunisiens (IRIE) was the group responsible for the organization and implementation of the elections.

According to the CBC, many Tunisians living in Canada did not think they would get the chance to vote after the federal government said in September it would not allow the Tunisian embassy to open polling stations. The CBC reported that the decision was overturned in mid-October.

Bochra Manai, general secretary for the IRIE, said, “Canada only said that they didn’t want to be part of an electoral circumscription… They had this position since September, and they continued to have it in every meeting with the Tunisian ambassador.”

In an email to The Daily, a spokesperson for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Aliya Mawani, addressed the issue.

“Canada encourages foreign states to allow their citizens residing permanently or temporarily in Canada to exercise their right to vote in elections in their country of origin, namely by absentee ballot. All requests for foreign polling are assessed on a case by case basis,” she wrote.

In February 2008, the federal government established a policy to reject requests made by foreign states to count Canada as an extraterritorial electoral constituency.

Mawani defined an “extraterritorial constituency” as “a voting district or riding determined by a foreign state to include territory in Canada – essentially making Canada a riding of a foreign country.”

Manai attributed the federal government’s position to a misunderstanding. “They didn’t want Canadian citizens to be a part of a foreign assembly, but the fact that we are electing deputies for the [Tunisian] assembly doesn’t mean that they are representing us. They are not representing anyone [in particular]. They are representing all the Tunisians,” she said.

“We had the right to vote here because Tunisia and the [IRIE, who organized the election within Tunisia] thought it would be important to hear what the Tunisians outside the country have to say. There is no representation of Canada or any other country [in the Tunisian assembly],” Manai continued.

Haroun Bouazzi, a Tunisian citizen living in Montreal, said, “The Tunisian people really wanted to participate in this change… We saw that people were waiting in line for hours, even outside Tunisia. For the vote in Canada and other countries, the participation was very strong. The Tunisian people really wanted to be a part of this.”

Manai said that the IRIE was worried about accommodating the masses of people coming from all over and outside of the city to vote.

“A lot of people came from cities outside of Montreal. The people organized themselves and came in buses. We were scared of the number of Tunisians we would have to deal with,”   she explained.

“We had to deal with many challenges in every country, but it was part of the excitement,” she continued.

Borhene El Kamel, spokesperson for the Tunisian Embassy, said the election went “extremely well, in an ordered, democratic and transparent manner” in Ottawa.

“That was the same case for the elections held in the other foreign countries as well as in Tunisia,” he continued.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, was declared the winner early this week, with over 40 per cent of the vote.

Manai said that she thought that “a lot of people are really scared of what the party could say or do.”

She proposed that Tunisians should be patient, however. “If this new government will put in danger the freedom we fought for during the last year… I will, as [a] Tunisian, fight for them again. That’s my position for the moment.”