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Tunisians look at election campaign posters stuck on walls on October 1, 2011 in Tunis, nine months after the fall of the totalitarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia is blocking Canadian election observers from monitoring its post-revolt voting because Ottawa has barred expatriates from voting here.

Canadians taking part in election-monitoring missions organized by the European Union and non-governmental organizations have been unable to get accreditation badges, although their colleagues from other countries can.

Officials from Tunisia's elections commission have told them their accreditations are on hold until the voting dispute with Ottawa is resolved.

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"When we went to get our badges, all of the badges were issued to people of various nationalities, but the Canadian badges were on hold pending the resolution of this issue," said Les Campbell, a Canadian with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which Tunisia's interim government invited to observe the election.

The move is a tit-for-tat because Ottawa has told Tunisia that expatriates and dual citizens in Canada cannot vote in the Oct. 23 election for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution and the rules for a new democracy. The country ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January in the first of the Arab Spring protests.

The Harper government says it would allow regular absentee ballots, but objects in this case because Tunisia has included Canada in an overseas constituency for the purposes of the vote. And although Ottawa can't enforce the ban, it expects foreign governments to respect its wishes.

Under Tunisia's election rules, the one million Tunisians who live abroad will elect 19 members. Canada is part of a constituency that includes 24 countries from the Americas and parts of Europe that will elect two members.

The Harper government says elections in which Canada is treated as part of a foreign constituency could erode Canadian sovereignty. Canada is the only country with such a policy, and it has cast doubt over similar elections planned by Italy, which has twice elected Canadians to its Parliament, and France, which plans to add a North American member to its National Assembly in next year's legislative elections.

Canadian observers financed by Ottawa are part of the 150-strong team organized by the European Union for the election. A source in Tunisia said they, too, have not received accreditation, and Canada's ambassador to Tunis, Ariel Delouya, was attempting to resolve the issue. Tunisia's ambassador to Ottawa, Mouldi Sakri, said he was unaware of the issue regarding accreditation for election observers.

Mr. Campbell said six of NDI's 25 observers are Canadians, and other Canadians are also part of the mission of the U.S.-based Carter Center.

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It's an inconvenience, and an untidy spat at what is supposed to be the dawn of a new democracy. Mr. Campbell said it's a shame people from Canada, a country with a good reputation for election observing, are being blocked from the first Arab Spring election, one that will be watched closely around the world.

He said officials from Tunisia's elections authority, the ISIE, suggested they petition the head of the agency to allow Canadians to be accredited. A senior Tunisian official met with NDI staffers in Washington on Wednesday, Mr. Campbell said.

"They are very sympathetic. It's a co-operative type of discussion with them. But they said clearly that until this is resolved, they will withhold accreditation for Canadian observers."

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