Tunisia’s leading Islamist party will not try to impose Islamic law if, as expected, it wins this month’s legislative election, its leader said today, as dozens of Arab bloggers met in the capital, Tunis.
The first election campaign to emerge from the Arab Spring began on Saturday, with 81 political parties expected to contest seats in the former authoritarian state.
“What was once one of the most repressive countries in the Arab world has seen an explosion of political activity, with the formation of 111 political parties,” AP reports:
In a country where the Interior Ministry — the former election-monitor, since relieved of its duties — used to award more than 90 percent of the vote to the ruling party, the diversity of choice is staggering: 81 parties will be competing in the election to make up 785 lists; another 676 lists are composed of independent candidates. They’re competing for 217 seats.
The country’s vanguard role in the Arab world’s democratic tumult is likely to be recognized when the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is announced in Oslo on Friday, with Tunisian cyberactivist Lina Ben Mhenni (above) touted as a possible winner.
He denied critics’ allegations that Ennahda’s moderate image disguises hardline tendencies.
“We will not retreat from these values… We will support these values,” he said. “A woman’s freedom and her freedom of dress has been established and we will develop it.”
Ennahda is the most widely recognized party and leads in opinion polls, but its victory is far from assured, observers suggest.
“The Islamic party has a kind of credibility, but there are other parties that have weight which we’ve seen in the launch of election campaign,” the University of Northampton’s Noureddine Miladi told The Media Line. “I don’t buy the idea that Ennahda will have a kind of overwhelming win in these elections,” he said.
The October 23 vote for a constituent assembly will expose the relative strength of Tunisia’s Islamists and secular groups who insist that Ennahda – and other, more radical Salafi groups – are illiberal actors who will undermine prospects for a genuine democratic transition.
The emergence of Islamist parties as key political actors “is a turning point,” said Emad Shahin, a scholar on Islamic law and politics at the University of Notre Dame.
Some observers already dismiss secular liberal and democratic groups as significant forces, insisting that the contest between Islamists that will determine the trajectory of the Arab Spring.
“That’s the struggle of the future,” said Azzam Tamimi, Ghannouchi’s biographer. “The real struggle of the future will be about who is capable of fulfilling the desires of a devout public. It’s going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists.”
Ennahda has declared its commitment to a Turkish-style civil state, Ghannouchi recently told the Sousse Business Forum. The party believes that “building a democratic system is a goal in itself,” he said, rejecting suggestions that Ennahda had an instrumental and shallow approach to democracy as a means for securing power and imposing Islamic law.
“If the Islamic spectrum goes from Bin Laden to Erdogan, which of them is Islam?” Ghannouchi asks. “Why are we put in the same place as a model that is far from our thought, like the Taliban or the Saudi model, while there are other successful Islamic models that are close to us, like the Turkish, the Malaysian and the Indonesian models, models that combine Islam and modernity?”
But Ghannouchi has also insisted that the Quran and Sunna represent the “ultimate law” and Tamimi, a close confidante, does not discount the possibility of shariah law.
“It is up to the people to decide,” said Tamimi.“That’s a choice that has to be respected, and I’m sure that al-Nahda movement would want to see a system of law and a system of governance that is in full compatibility with Islam.”
Most observers and analysts credit Ghannouchi with modernizing the party and accepting basic democratic norms. The party’s relative moderation has prompted Western states to adopt a neutral, hands-off approach to Tunisia’s political actors during the transition.
“During my meetings with Western officials and diplomats, I received the message that Ennahda will be welcomed if it wins the elections,” Ghannouchi told Reuters.
“They told me that they stand at the same distance from all competitors and their goal is the success of the democratic transition, because the failure of the transition would be catastrophic for Europe, for example, which will be flooded by hundreds of thousands of migrants.”
But some voices within his party appear hostile to Western democracies and suspicious of democracy assistance. The party leader’s own daughter – Soumaya Ghannouchi – recently wrote that democracy support to Tunisia was aimed at “engineering a new set of docile, domesticated and US-friendly elites.”
“As usual, investment and aid are conditional on adoption of the US model in the name of liberalisation and reform,” she wrote in The Guardian. “One wonders what would be left of the Arab revolutions in such infiltrated civil societies, domesticated political parties, and dependent economies.”