The “Arab Spring,” the regional upheaval that swept Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past year, was supposed to mark the beginning of a new, more democratic Arab world. But if this week’s election results from Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, are any guide, the transition from entrenched autocracy to pluralistic democracy is by no means assured.
The first free election in Tunisia’s history brought to power an Islamist party, Nahda, that may yet jeopardize the country’s newly gained freedoms. Banned under President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who brutally suppressed Islamist movements during his 23-year rule, Nahda won a new lease on life following Ali’s ouster last January. Now it has won an election. Early voting returns suggested that Nahda could have garnered as much as 50 percent of the vote, and the party was running first in every single voting district. Not entirely unforeseen, the success of Tunisia’s largest and best-organized Islamist party nevertheless raises worrying questions about whether a country that for years had been one of the most modern and secular in the Arab world will remain that way when Islamists have access to power.
There is ample reason for worry. Nahda’s founder, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, has repeatedly sought to put a friendly face on the party’s agenda, insisting that it would respect Tunisia’s secular tradition, including the rights of women to education and employment and the right to reject Islamic garb like headscarves. But that did not prevent Ghannouchi from trying to stir up voter support in the run-up to the election by appealing to more religiously conservative elements in the electorate. At one election rally, he instructed the audience that “God wants you to vote for the party that will protect your faith.” That party, of course, was Nahda.
In addition to a tendency to go off script, critics note that the party, a descendent of the Muslim Brotherhood, has a documented record of radicalism and violence that belies its moderate message. Exiled members of Nahda in France, for instance, have joined the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, a group that sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood; some of Nahda’s rank-and-file would like to see it adopt the Brotherhood as a model. As Ghannouchi himself has acknowledged, moreover, the party counts among its base fundamentalist Salafists who hope to overturn Tunisia’s secular traditions. Ghannouchi has insisted that this is a small minority within the party, but a radical party seeking mainstream respectability might be expected to say exactly that.
Fears that Nahda is talking a double game on moderation were amplified in a troubling outbreak of violence last week. On Friday, hundreds of Islamist protestors rallied in protest against the television screening of “Persepolis,” an animated film about an Iranian girl living during the Iranian Revolution. Because the film showed God as a cartoon, protestors denounced it as an offense to Islam. Chanting, “Your god has been insulted, come out and defend him!” a petrol-bomb armed mob tried to burn down the house of the television station’s owner, who was forced to flee with his wife and children. Given its presumed moderation, Nahda might have been expected unequivocally to condemn the attacks. But despite expressing its opposition to the violence, Nahda appeared to side with the protestors, as it insisted that the film itself was a provocation that was just as much a cause of the violence as the religious fanatics who took it upon themselves to silence the television station’s owner. As a demonstration of Nahda’s commitment to pluralism and non-violence, it was unconvincing at best.
The questions surrounding Nahda underscore the political uncertainty to which the Arab Spring has given way. Despite hopeful early pronouncements that the ouster of Arab autocrats would mean a better future for the countries they ruled, little supporting evidence has emerged. In Egypt, it is the Muslim Brotherhood that has seemed to be the most bolstered by Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In Libya, there are indications that Islamist rebels, having taken their vengeance on Moammar Qaddafi, will become the country’s new power brokers. With its election this week, Tunisia too has joined the club of countries where Islamism is a political force on the rise.
It should be said that the elections are not a coronation. Nahda’s Islamists may have won the largest gains this week, but Tunisia’s proportional representation system is designed to make it difficult for any single party to dominate. Nahda’s first order of business will be to form a unity government and build consensus with the more liberal parties in the Tunisian assembly. Whatever the party’s ambitions, it does not yet have the ability to realize them uncontested.
Still, Tunisians are right to worry that the rights they hold dear could be rolled back by an Islamist government. For years, the country distinguished itself as one of the most tolerant in the Arab world. Just a few years ago, visitor to the capital of Tunis could see female police officers patrol the streets, and dine in restaurants where Israeli tourists were warmly welcomed. It would be a great tragedy for this North African nation if its first-ever democratic election led to a break with that tolerant tradition, and an Arab Spring intended to sow the seeds of freedom instead gave way to an Islamist winter that crushed it.
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