Tunisian Elections: From Yesterday’s Most Wanted to Tomorrow’s Leaders

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A Tunisian woman looks on October 18, 2011 at a wall covered with posters of candidates in Tunis ahead of the October 23 election. (Photo: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images)

“No one will dare propose himself as a dictator. No one. The best institution we have now is the street,” says Mohamed Ali Harrath.  The description could easily fit Libya, feverishly celebrating the death of Muammar Gaddafi, or Egypt, gearing up for parliamentary elections in November, the first since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But Harrath is referring to his native Tunisia, the country that lit the touch paper for the uprisings that toppled the regimes of its larger neighbors to the East. Its revolution, sparked by the death of a fruit seller in Sidi Bouzid, was quick, almost clinical, taking barely a month to sweep President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power. Tunisia’s democracy is also blooming before others in the region, with elections called for this Sunday, Oct. 23. From dictatorship to democracy in less than nine months: Tunisia remains not only the seedbed of the Arab Spring but its model.

And that model may prove uncomfortable for the western countries that have hailed the uprisings and joined the public denunciations of regimes with whom they until recently did business. An Islamist party Ennahdha is topping the polls as Tunisians prepare to select a Constituent Assembly to pen the country’s new constitution and set up its transitional government. Tunisians living abroad have already been invited to cast their ballots. Their ranks include exiles whose mistreatment, not only by the Tunisian authorities but by storied democracies and institutions that might have been expected to protect them, informs their worldview.

(WATCH: Tunisia prepares to vote.)

Harrath is one such exile. Born in the cradle of the Tunisian revolution, Sidi Bouzid, in 1963, he fled his homeland in 1990 after multiple bouts of imprisonment and torture. For five years he had “a new name and a new personality every week” as he traveled on false documents; he finally applied for refugee status in the U.K. In 2004, he set up the Islam Channel, an English-language TV service according to its website providing “alternative news, current affairs, and entertainment programming from an Islamic perspective” and to Harrath himself “defusing the tensions between civilizations.”

We first met at a dinner with British politicians in a fashionable Italian restaurant owned by an English football star and staffed, as it turned out, by Tunisian exiles who clustered around the table with shining eyes. To them he was an inspirational figure. To Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, Harrath was a problem they labeled a terrorist. That label was widely accepted, earning Harrath a prominent position on Interpol’s Red Notice wanted list. In May of this year, the organization wrote to Harrath confirming that the notice had been rescinded, explaining that “After re-examinining all the information in the file, the Commission [for the Control of Interpol’s Files]…considered that the proceedings against you were predominantly political in nature.”

Interpol isn’t the only institution relearning the lesson that yesterday’s terrorist may be recast as today’s freedom fighter and the freedom fighter as tomorrow’s political powerhouse. Martin McGuinness, once a leader of the Provisional IRA, has served as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and now is among frontrunners to be Ireland’s President. Harrath was a founder member of the Front Islamique Tunisien (FIT), a revolutionary movement launched in the mid-1980s with the aim of ousting the Tunisian regime; another of its founders, Rachid Ghannouchi, now heads Ennahdha.

“We realized engaging with the regime [would be] a waste of time, so the only way forward [would be] to be rid of it,” says Harrath. The only way to do this would be “fighting, coup d’état, whatever you can put your hands on.” He is adamant that FIT, unlike many insurrectionist groups, did not itself practice the violence it argued was necessary, at least in its early phase. During his activist years in Tunisia “there were never violent actions, we were clear about that. Action would be one day—if you have a coup d’état you have to do it in a sudden away… We never had any action, not because we didn’t believe in action but because action is a strategic move.”

If the speed with which Tunisia’s revolution took off owes something to the work of FIT and other activists and dissidents, so will the look of the country that is emerging from the turbulence. Tunisia’s nascent leaders are unlikely to feel much kinship with the U.S. or Europe, no matter that the U.S. and Europe came round to backing the uprisings. Harrath is still subject to a travel ban by the 25 European countries that are signatories to the Schengen agreement. He was arrested last year in South Africa and believed he was about to be subject to rendition to Kenya, when a court intervened. I ask him if he has considered travel to the U.S. He answers:

No way, man. Do you want me to go to Guantanamo? It’s not a safe place to go. The States? Forget it. You can go to Guatemala and you will feel safe but not the States. In the States there is no rule of law. You can get arrested, you can get deported, you can get detained in Guantanamo for no reason.

President Obama, Harrath adds, “can’t implement his own beliefs. I think he’s a good chap but the machine is bigger than him.”

If Western democracies impress him so little, what does Harrath hope for from the democratic process in Tunisia? “It’s not a secular revolution,” he says. His assurances that women will continued to be empowered, not relegated, by the revolution are less convincing than his explanations of why he would not wish a religious dictatorship to replace the secular kind. As a student in Iran, he learned that “the worst dictatorship is when it is in the name of God. It doesn’t matter how powerful the dictator is, God is always greater. But when the dictatorship is in the name of God, you have no refuge, you have nowhere to go.”

In February, Harrath returned to Tunisia for the first time in 21 years. It was a difficult homecoming—his parents both died during his exile. He hopes to make a permanent return and to enter politics when he’s raised enough money to do so. I ask him if he worries the revolution could still go wrong, and that’s when he talks about the power of the street. “Dictatorship has no place in the 21st century,” he says. He may be right. The question is what comes next. Don’t be surprised if it’s not in the image of the democracies that failed Harrath.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .