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Department of Political Affairs

Elections in the Arab World: UN Assistance

DPA E-News, Feburary 2012

Elections are a common feature of historic transi­tions in motion through­out the Middle East and North Africa. From Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Yemen, millions of people who took to the streets to demand change have earned the opportunity to freely choose their leaders at the ballot box.

 Man studying campaigning posters prior to the 2011 elections in Tunisia.


The UN is now providing elec­toral assistance in different ways around the region, while recogniz­ing that these remain nationally-owned electoral processes.

"Your future is yours"

“Your future is yours, and yours alone, but the United Nations stands ready to help in every way we can,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared as he travelled to Cairo in March 2011 follow­ing the dramatic events of Tahrir Square.

“We have vast experience in assisting countries through delicate transitions. In Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia — we have helped to organize free and fair elections and build transparent civic institutions. This knowl­edge, these experiences, may prove useful,” the Secretary-General added.


In Tunisia, authorities reached out to the United Nations soon after the ouster of President Ben Ali in January 2011, the first regime to fall in the Arab Spring and the first to hold transitional elections, in October.

A UN electoral team worked alongside Tunisia’s new electoral commission, helping to build capacity, providing comparative advice and assisting with out­reach to civil society and youth. The UN also helped to promote the role of women, including by working with women candidates.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed October’s peaceful voting for a Constituent Assembly as a landmark event and an inspiration for the wider region. The election of a significant percentage of women was notable, although more must be done.

Carlos Valenzuela, the senior UN electoral expert for the region, credits Tunisia’s authorities with taking key decisions early in the process and simpli­fying procedures, thereby minimizing the potential for controversy.

Whereas previous elections were run by the Ministry of Interior, the naming of a new election commission, including key figures asso­ciated with the democratic opposition, helped give the election “immense credibility” in the eyes of the population, he said.

  In October 2011, Tunisians casted their ballots in the first elections of the Arab Spring.


In Egypt, UN support was formalized in a project signed in November, just ahead of the first round of parliamentary elections that were to continue through February. The project includes support in areas such as public outreach and voter education and activities to increase the participation of rural and women voters.

The UN is also planning to support Egypt’s High Electoral Commission to apply les­sons from the parliamentary elec­tions to future polls. Presidential elections scheduled for mid-2012 are expected to be another crucial moment in the country’s transition to democracy.


Libya’s elections, also slated for mid-2012, present national authorities and the United Nations with a distinct chal­lenge. They are the first for most Libyans following decades of denial of democracy under the Qaddafi regime.

“It can be easier to start from scratch, however the challenges in Libya are still huge,” says Valenzuela.

The country’s transitional authorities established elec­toral assistance as a key area of expected UN support through the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which began its operations last September. Drafting an electoral law, deciding on an appropriate voters list, and establishing a national electoral com­mission are among the key tasks on the road to elections expected to be held in June 2012.


Elections are also on the agenda of Yemen’s transition. Under a UN-mediated agreement reached in November 2011, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down and initiate a politi­cal transition. At this writing, the United Nations was developing an assistance strategy to support the early 2012 elections for an interim presidency, building on existing cooperation between the UN Country Team and Yemen’s Supreme Council on Elections and Referenda.


With demands for assistance continuing throughout the region, successful UN electoral engagement in the Arab world will require continued close coop­eration among the key UN entities involved, especially DPA and UNDP, its main implementing partner man­aging projects in the region.

The experience thus far in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond has shown the value of such coop­eration in order to define programmes of electoral support, drawing on the techni­cal expertise of both as well as UNDP’s country-presence and established networks.

High Expectations

In a region where democratic enthusiasm is still greater than democratic experi­ence, patience and sustained effort will be needed to ensure that these transitional elections will satisfy the high expecta­tions of people in the region. The United Nations will be there to provide the support requested and needed.


More about Electoral Assistance provided by the Department of Political Affairs