Tunisia's Election Brings the Arab Spring to San Francisco

The Bay Area will be one of six cities in the U.S. that will have a polling place for ex-pats.

Habiib Krit gets emotional just thinking about it.

The self-employed engineer and UC Berkeley graduate will get to participate in a political movement near and dear to his heart for the first time.

On Sunday, Oct. 23, when Tunisians across the world head to the voting station, it will be the first time in 23 years that the Northern African country will get to elect a new leader. And the country's Arab neighbors, and the rest of the world will be watching.

In January, when Tunisians rised against the longtime rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country not only freed themselves of a leader that many felt had a control of every aspect of their lives but they also sparked a revolution across the Arab world that led to uprisings in Egypt and the death of Moammar Khaddafy Thursday.

This weekend, Tunisia will be the first of the Arab Spring countries to hold a post-revolution democratic election and one of the six polling places for ex-patriots to vote in the United States was in San Francisco.

"Even as I listen to you I have chills," Krit said. "I'm in my 50s, I just turned 50, in no part of my life ever there was a sense that that there were a moral, political presence or option or anything. It was always a singular oppressive force that ruled things and controlled everything, more than a political issue for all of us it was a social issue."

Krit and his fellow countrymen will choose 217 members for the country's Constituent Assembly. Of those seats, 199 will be filled by Tunisians in the country and 18 seats will be held for ex-pats in six overseas constituencies.

There are about 8,000 Tunisian-Americans who have registered with the embassy for this weekend's vote. But pre-registration is not required to participate in the election.

Instead Tunisians can register at their local polling place and provide either a national ID card or a Tunisian passport to prove they are eligible for the election.

Krit said the documents can be expired and still valid to register to vote.

The Bay Area's lone polling station was held at the Arab Cultural & Community Center, 2 Plaza St. on Friday and Saturday.

Krit is the voting manager for the San Francisco polling station. He said he found out about a week ago that there would be a place to vote in the Bay Area after he applied to have one here by learning about the process through social media sites.

Krit said he is unsure how many people will come to the polling station in San Francisco.

"For their first time doing this, they are doing pretty damn good," said Jim Soper, who is helped Krit set up the San Francisco polling station and who runs CountedAsCast.com, a site that has been advocating for fair and accurate elections since 2005. "They will be able to carry out the election and their election will be similar to what we see in the united stets."

Soper said because there are only six polling places in the United States, Tunisians are going to have to travel far to participate.

Krit said both the San Francisco and Los Angeles polling stations will draw people from as far away as Europe and South America.

"Tunisia itself and the Tunisian revolution was the first revolution to evolve and this is the first election of the Arab spring," he said. "So Egypt is going to be watching, Libya will be watching and the entire Arab world will be watching.

It is coming from the people itself and that’s why it has a better chance of succeeding. The Tunisian people are going to have to struggle to have this succeed."

Beyond working out the logistics of setting up a poll, which requires three people to volunteer to work for three days, all day, at a polling station, there is the matter of political discussion and democracy being such a new thing for Tunisians.

Krit said his family back in Tunisia has told him that some people don't understand how a democratic election works, or some don't even know how to stand in a poll.  

"I want to look at it on the praise of the process and not the shortcomings because really it’s not that easy to put elections together in a country that has never really had democratic elections," Krit said. "I think it’s really really touching that the country wants to do that for us."

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