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Tunisian elections set to empower Islamists. How moderate will they be?

Tunisian elections: Islamist party Nahda is set to do well in today's historic election in Tunisia, which will be a litmus test for the Arab Spring.

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The Nessma TV episode was only the latest in a string of protests by Islamic radicals.

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In February, salafists attacked Tunis’ red light district. (Tunisia is the only country in the Arab world where prostitution is legal and prostitutes get monthly health checks by government doctors.)

On June 26, Islamists attacked a movie theater in Tunis to protest the showing of the movie ‘Ni Allah Ni Maitre’ (Neither God nor Master) by French-Tunisian director Nadia El Fani. The movie explores secularism in Tunisia; it’s title has since been changed to ‘Laïcité Inch’allah’ (Secularism, if God wishes.)

In the coastal city of Sousse, protesters stormed the literature department of the university earlier this month after a female student was denied admittance because she refused to take off her niqab, a face-covering veil.

According to the Ministry of Religion around 900 mosques have been taken over by salafists since the revolution.

Many see the hand of Hizb el-Tahrir, a radical Islamic party that was denied recognition because it rejects democracy, behind the street protests.

How radical is Nahda, really?

But many observers also note that while Nahda denounces the use the violence, it often stands by the demands of the violent supporters. So while Ghannouchi has condemned the Oct. 14 march that turned violent, he has also said “all of Tunisia has been insulted by Nessma TV.”

“Every time there is violence, Nahda condemns it, but not without adding that there are limits to freedom of expression,” says Hamadi Redissi, a professor of political science at Tunis University and an expert of political Islam.

Mr. Redissi is keeping a weary eye on the outcome of Sunday’s elections.

“These days, whenever my son calls me from abroad, he asks: ‘So, dad, how are things in Tunistan?' ” says Redissi. “The facts that more than 100 lawyers filed a complaint against Nessma TV owner Karoui, that the public prosecutor actually opened a criminal investigation against Nessma TV for defaming Islam, and that Karoui has publicly apologized all point in one direction: we are already giving up on freedom of expression in Tunisia.”

“The biggest danger," says Redissi, "is that Nahda will score a big victory, but not a big enough one to allow it to push its agenda in the constituent assembly. In that case, they might just resort to the street to get what they want.”

Today’s elections may yet hold surprises.

For now, the Tunisians seem mostly baffled by the enormity of the choices put before them.

After decades of fake elections which dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali invariably won with 90 percent, they are suddenly confronted with a choice of more than 1,500 electoral lists and more than 100 parties. As a result, many people will not vote on Sunday: only 50 percent of eligible Tunisians have registered as voters.

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