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Tunisia Elections Preview

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began in 2010. And tomorrow, Tunisians will vote for a new president. The country's first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, died unexpectedly in July. His successor faces a weakened economy and increased number of terrorist attacks.

We're joined by Emir Sfaxi, who is a Tunisian policy expert and former Fulbright scholar in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

EMIR SFAXI: Thank you, Scott. And I'm very glad to be at NPR.

SIMON: What do you think Tunisians consider to be the most urgent issues right now?

SFAXI: If you ask the Tunisians in the streets what are their struggles daily, they will tell you economic problems. Tunisia is really facing tremendous challenges. We saw a decline of GDP per capita for Tunisians, which is unprecedented. Tunisians struggle in daily life. And then the currency is devaluating a lot. And so we are still really looking forward toward these elections if they could bring relief, economically speaking.

SIMON: There are 26 candidates, more than even have run on the Democratic primary for president in the United States.

SFAXI: As surprising as it is. And I will tell you that in the beginning, there were actually about 90. But then only 26 made the legal requirements.

SIMON: Are there any two or three who seem to be more prominent than the others right now?

SFAXI: We have Youssef Chahed, who is prime minister of Tunisia. We have the minister of defense. And we have also Nabil Karoui, who came from, let's say, a lot of populism inspired by, unfortunately, the USA and the election of President Trump, in a way. He was very close to the circles of power until he decided to run against them, and he became an enemy. He's in jail for money laundering and for tax evasion, but people are against the use of executive to jail political adversaries.

SIMON: So he's been able to use his arrest politically, to say, the government's afraid of what I represent; come vote for me.

SFAXI: Exactly. He's betting on this, and he's No. 1 in the polls.

SIMON: I gather you were a protester in 2011. Do you believe these democratic elections are going to come closer to realizing the dreams that brought you into the protest movement?

SFAXI: I'm not thinking that these elections in 2019 will change anything major. But on the grand scheme of things, we're showing to the people in the Arab world that they can be free. We are writing this beautiful story of an Arab Muslim country that is able to sustain its democracy, that has a president that died. And after 48 days from his passing, we're having the elections being prepared, as the constitution mentioned. We didn't see a single boot (ph) in the street, no gunshots - nothing - no coups.

And we need the U.S. and other allies to just realize that whatever we're doing here is a blueprint for the region as well.

SIMON: Emir Sfaxi is a Tunisian policy expert. Thanks so much for being with us.

SFAXI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "SOMETHING YOU LOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.