Growing tension between secularists and Islamists is dominating the run-up to Tunisia’s election, as the US administration affirmed that it will recognize whatever government emerges following the October 23 poll.
Washington has committed $55 million in non-security assistance to aid Tunisia’s democratic transition, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative this week announced the latest tranche of grants to enhance civil society, rule of law, political participation and economic opportunity. But the US is supporting the process, not any party, officials insist.
“We are not backing a party or a candidate. We support a free and transparent process,” said Gordon Gray, Washington’s Ambassador to Tunis.
Islamists are exploiting new-found political space to undermine liberal values, a leading secular party leader said today.
“Today In Tunisia, there is a modernist tendency that seeks to strengthen freedoms and progressive values ,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the left-leaning Ettajdid Movement.
“There is a second direction which wants to use the religious feelings of the people and seeks to impose control and a specific lifestyle,” he told Reuters. His party is a member of the Modernist Democratic Camp, an electoral alliance, considered to be the principal rival to Ennahda, the Islamist party currently leading the polls.
Ennahda vehemently rejects suggestions that the party is secretly wedded to an illiberal agenda or practice doublespeak, using a democratic discourse in public while espousing traditional Islamist positions in private.
Some 130 election observers from the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and several other democracy assistance groups are expected to monitor the poll. But experienced observers are not expressing specific concerns about Ennahda’s commitment to democratic norms.Any party could potentially “kidnap the democratic process,” argues David Williams, an elections specialist who recently polled in Egypt and Tunisia for the International Republican Institute.
“That’s a danger that exists no matter whether it’s an Islamist party or not an Islamist party,” he says. “Not being able to gaze into the future, you can’t really substantively make those judgments at this point in time. You hope not.”
Televised campaign ads give a flavor of secularists’ concerns, writes HDS Greenway in The New York Times:
The political ads [above] are entitled “The Morning After,” and one shows a waiter in an empty seaside restaurant. The tourists have all fled and business is off, suggesting the fate of the country should the Islamists come to power. Another shows a mother with a head scarf comforting her children, complaining that her husband has left her and now may want four wives, whereas Tunisian men are presently limited to one.
Yet another spot shows a decidedly secular young lady whose job will now be filled by a man, she fears, and another shows a student regretting that he slept through the elections that the Islamists have just won.
“After they came to power, they misused religion to ban the Internet,” says a student in one of the “No to extremism” TV spots (above), according to a translated script provided to Campaigns and Elections. “The arts…football…music. Now there is nothing anymore. They destroyed the country. There is no place for enjoyment. … I want to leave this country. There is no life here.”
The Islamists were protesting against a ban on women who wear the niqab, or full-face veil, enrolling in university, and the decision by a Tunisian television station to broadcast animated film “Persepolis” which they said denigrated Islam. Earlier on Sunday, Islamists protested outside the offices of the private Nessma television station in the centre of Tunis……The station angered some conservative Muslims by broadcasting “Persepolis“, an award-winning film based on an account of a woman growing up in Iran under strict religious rule following the 1979 Islamic revolution. About 300 protesters, some with sticks and knives, tried to set fire to the television station but were prevented from doing so by a large number of police.
Ennahda condemned the violence. “I am against infringing on the sentiments of people and their religion, but that does not stop us being completely against violence, whatever form it is in,” said a party official. “We are in favour of peaceful protests to demand rights and on principle we condemn violence.”
Disputes between secularists and Ennahda “should not prevent co-existence with it in the constitutional assembly, within the respect of the rules of the democratic game,” said Ibrahim. “Democracy means co-existence with everyone, without exception, including Ennahda.”
It is widely recognized that Ennahda adopted a democratic discourse well before other Islamist groups, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. And in any case, the party insists, constitutional red lines will discipline whichever party wins the election (as in other Muslim democracies).
“All Islamist parties are not the same,” said party veteran Beji Caid Essebsi. “There’s a red line on which we all agree,” which is to maintain the 1959 constitution’s definition of Tunisia as a Muslim country — but “not an Islamic republic,” he said.
“We respect every religion,” he added. “Everyone is free to practice his religion freely. … In the Tunisian parliament we have even Jews.”
What explains the Islamists’ popularity, asks Greenway in The New York Times:
The hand of Islam lies more lightly on the land in Tunisia than in many Muslim countries, with wine grown and consumed and women decidedly emancipated. What, then, explains Al–Nahda’s popularity? Some say it is that the Islamists have suffered more, having been jailed and their political activity banned so harshly under Ben Ali. Others say it is that the Islamists stand for values and are less corrupt then their secular brothers.
Najib Chebbi, a soft-spoken and dignified man who heads the leading secular party, the Progressive Democratic Party, told me that although Tunisians in their hearts may admire the Islamists, in their heads voters believe that the secularists can do a better job creating jobs and modernizing the country. Or so he hopes.