Monday, March 16, 2015

It happened.

(Or, life on the other side of this post.)

I realized that I have referenced that the elections in Tunisia this fall had a big impact on my personal and professional life, but never really explained why. So I wanted to write it all out - mostly to get some thoughts down while they're still relatively fresh. Because big international trips have an odd effect. As life-changing as they feel at the time, they are book-ended by your normal life at home - and so after a few weeks they start to feel like a dream. It's like coming back for the beginning of the school year - as soon as you're back on school property, you feel like you were gone for a weekend instead of a summer.

In the fall, Tunisia voted to elected a new parliament and president. The elections were split over three election dates - one each at the end of October, November, and December - which made for a crazy fall. Long story short, my organization works to support democracy around the world, including through observing elections to ensure that they are free and fair. In Tunisia, as in other places, we accomplish this both through supporting local groups to conduct observation and through bringing in a small delegation of international observers.

I was lucky enough to be in Tunisia for about two months total during the election season to support the international delegation. (I flew back to DC for two weeks between the November and December election - just long enough to get a bit discombobulated and to get in the Christmas spirit.) I was thrilled not just that I was involved in the election observation, but that I got to spend an extended time in Tunis. It was wonderful to develop a more personal connection with the country and our team there - and pretty fun to play expat for a few weeks.

In short - it was a crazy, amazing, exhausting, inspiring, round-the-clock, all-cylinders-firing, highlight-of-my-career-so-far couple of months.

On a political level, these elections were a huge milestone in Tunisia's democratic transition - so far, it's the only real success story of the Arab Spring. Tunisians freely elected a president and parliament for the first time in the country's history, leading to a peaceful transfer of power. Despite a lot of political drama in the months leading up to the election, and some minor issues on election day, everything went smoothly and everyone accepted the results.

The most impressive work was done by the Tunisian observer groups. One of our partners used advanced statistically based methodology, known as a "quick count," that enabled them to prove that the results released by the election commission were an accurate representation of the votes cast. Their findings were widely reported in the Tunisian press, and we think they made a huge difference in the fact that political parties and the public accepted the results. Meanwhile, members of the international delegation shared experiences from their own countries and took back lessons from the Tunisian experience.

I was so lucky to get to be involved. It was a huge learning experience in managing a huge operation, in working round the clock, in putting your best foot forward, and in learning quickly from mistakes - not to mention in observing elections. I also learned a tremendous amount about Tunisian politics, though I still feel like I've just barely scratched the surface. It was so cool to be a small part of that historic moment.

Best of all, I met fascinating people from all over the world. The international delegation was full of people with diverse experience in politics, civil society, and business. We also brought in local staff from our other offices in the Middle East and North Africa, which made it feel like one big family party where you meet a lot of relatives for the first time. And whenever I'm in Tunisia, I feel so welcomed by my Tunisian colleagues. It is so wonderful to work with them in real life instead of over a Skype connection.

On a personal level - as important as the historic moment was, the elections, for me, were as much about the silly little memories as the big headline news. It was not just walking Avenue Bourguiba on election day, going to presidential campaign rallies, chatting with my Tunisian colleagues as they figured out who to vote for, or hearing the honking in the streets as soon as it was announced that Essebsi had won the presidency, it was also in the everyday moments over those three months. It was walking home from work as the streets darkened listening to the Serial podcast. It was getting loopy late on election night when everyone in the organization, from me to the president, was awake at 3am. It was Fitbit challenges and eating far too much shawarma from Tunistanbul and the drone of the Nespresso machine at all hours.

It is so rewarding to work hard with people you like and admire towards one big goal. It must recapture a bit of how it felt when the whole tribe worked together to bring down a woolly mammoth. All together, it was a crazy, amazing experience and while I don't miss the sleepless nights, I absolutely miss getting to work with so many amazing people on something so meaningful.

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