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Latest update : 2011-10-18

Tunisia: Islamists on the campaign trail

Their influence has been growing steadily since the fall of former Tunisian President Ben Ali. They advocate a democracy based on Islam for Tunisia. The Islamist Ennahdha party is the firm favourite to win the upcoming Tunisian elections. We went on the road with them to find out what their real plans are for the country, and what their real influence is.

Tunisia is about to hold its first free elections. On the 23rd of October, Tunisians will face the difficult task of outlining the Tunisia of tomorrow at the heart of the Constituent Assembly. After a long period of scant democracy, this time the menu is ample: no fewer than 115 political formations are to participate in the election.

For any nation this would seem like a jump in the deep end. But in the Tunisian context it is very sensitive, if not tense. After the revolution, Tunisians are airing their previously repressed feelings about Ben Ali: there is a need to talk, shout, protest, denounce and campaign. During the past few weeks, the debate has centred around one political group: Ennahdha, "The Renaissance" in Arabic. There have been cries about the Islamist threat, of the dangers of imposing Sharia in Tunisia and of the harsh measures of the old leader Rached Ghannouchi in the 1990s. "Recently, the political debate has been about nothing but that: if you are with or against Ennahdha’", complains a young Tunisian, "That is spoiling the democratic discourse and contributing to setting Tunisians against each other. It’s extremely dangerous."

Recent events – the violent protests caught on television after the film "Persopolis" was aired, the dean of faculty of Sousse who supported the refusal of two girls who wore the niqab – have also stoked the debate. Is the Salafist minority trying to undermine the electoral process? Are Ben Ali’s old cronies behind these events? Many people have historical reasons to want these elections to go badly.

For its part, the Islamist Ennahdha party claims that it wants to participate fully in democracy. Its representatives condemn extremist off-shoots and claim to be a moderate Islamist party, close to the AKP in Turkey. They have put forward a programme which – on paper at least – resembles that of social democrats.  "Judge us by our acts and our proposals and not just by assumptions", implore Ennahdha supporters.

Is this doublespeak or a true ideological change? It is too early to tell. However, even is the party receives a large endorsement – 20-30% according to the opinion polls – it cannot gain an absolute majority. The type of elections – proportional – does not favour large factions. Other parties are already beginning to distance themselves, particularly the Progressive Democratic Party (radical left, nationalist) and Ettakatol (social democrat). Ennahdha will surely be forced into making alliances if it wants to make its voice heard.

By Jean-Marie LEMAIRE , Julien FÉLIX , Rim MATHLOUTI

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