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.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Tunisian elections: A voter casts his ballot at a polling station during in Tunis, Sunday. The Islamist party Nahda is set to do well in the historic Tunisian elections.

Two opposing forces have claimed to speak for the Tunisian people in the run-up to the country’s first free elections for a constituent assembly today.

Last week, thousands of angry salafists -- radical Muslims -- marched through the streets of the capital, Tunis, with many in the crowd shouting: "The people want an Islamic state."

A few days later, a smaller, better-dressed crowd of perhaps 2,000 people walked down Mohamed V boulevard in Tunis shouting: "The people want a civic state."

Both slogans were a play of words on "the people want the fall of the regime," which became the slogan of the Tunisian revolution and then a rallying cry for protesters across the Arab world.

Tunisia’s elections, more than nine months after the country toppled its dictator of 23 years, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, are a litmus test for the Arab Spring.

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Tunisia was the first Arab country to topple its dictator, and it is now also the first to put democracy into practice.

“Tunisia is holding what looks so far like the first free democratic elections in the Arab world, not counting Iraq where elections were held only after a US invasion,” says Issandr Al-Amrani, a Moroccan-American political analyst who runs the well-respected website The Arabist from Cairo and is in Tunis for today's vote.

“But Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, so it remains to be seen what effect free elections here will have on other Arab countries like Egypt”, he adds.

Here come the Islamists

If the opinion polls are to be believed, Tunisia may also become the first of the Arab Spring countries to vote in an Islamic party.

Nahda (Awakening), Tunisia’s equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is expected to get anywhere from 22 to 30 percent of the vote according to various opinion polls.

In a majority voting system this would give Nahda a clear victory, which is why Tunisia has opted for a proportional voting system. But as the biggest political party, Nahda will undoubtedly put its stamp on the Tunisian political landscape.

Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has sought to reassure Tunisians and the world about his party’s intentions. Women’s rights will be guaranteed, Mr. Ghannouchi says, and there are no plans to impose an alcohol ban on Tunisia’s tourism sector, which provided 350,000 jobs, or 12 percent of the workforce, before the revolution.

“The political debate has forced Nahda to change its tone considerably,” says Al-Amrani. “They say they are a democratic party. For now we have no choice but to take their word for it.”

A violent face of Islam

But in the past couple weeks, Tunisians have been confronted with a much more violent face of Islam.

The Oct. 14 demonstration by the salafists was prompted by anger over the airing of the animated film Persepolis by a Tunisian TV channel, Nessma.

Persepolis is based on a graphic novel by French-Iranian Marjan Satrapi, which tells the story of the 1979 Iranian revolution through the eyes of a little girl.

What drew the ire of the salafists – and many ordinary Muslims as well – was a short scene in which the main character imagines a conversation with God, who is represented as an old man with a long beard. In Islam, all depictions of God are strictly forbidden.

Friday’s march began peacefully, but it ended with an angry mob breaking into the house of Nessma TV’s owner, Nabil Karoui, and attempting to set it on fire.

Mr. Karoui’s public apology over the airing of Persepolis – he said he wasn’t aware of the scene – has not succeeded in calming the salafists’ anger.

“They have attacked God and the Tunisian people," said student Younes Omar during the demonstration. "Nessma TV should be shut down.”

Mr. Omar is convinced that the airing of Persepolis was part of a plot by the West to anger Muslims and show them in a bad light. “They’re hoping that violent Islamic demonstrations will make people think twice about voting for Nahda,” he said. (Nessma TV is partly owned by Mediaset, the media company belonging to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.)

Deep suspicion over radical Islam

At the other side of the spectrum there is deep suspicion over the role that Nahda has played in demonstrations by radical Islamic militants.

“The salafists are nothing more than puppets in the hands of the Nahda party, and Rached Ghannouchi is the conductor,” said Salwa Ben Sbaa during the secularists' Oct. 16 demonstration.

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

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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