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Tunisia’s moderate Islamists reach out to secular rivals

The victory of moderate Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda in Sunday’s elections looks set to be confirmed. But with an overall majority in Parliament unlikely, Ennahda is in coalition talks with centre-left parties.


Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party has begun coalition talks with centre-left parties while votes are still being counted after landmark legislative elections in the country last Sunday.

By the end of Tuesday, Ennahda had won 37 seats in the 217-seat assembly while its closest rival, the secularist Congress for the Republic, had 13 seats.

Despite the clear lead, it is unlikely that Ennahda will achieve an outright majority.

The party, which is viewed by some with suspicion in a country with a long secular tradition, insisted on Tuesday that it wanted to share power and would not seek to push through radical measures.

“There will be no rupture. There will be continuity because we came to power via democracy, not through tanks," campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi told reporters at party headquarters on Tuesday. “We suffered from dictatorship and repression and now is an historic opportunity to savour the taste of freedom and democracy.”

The election of a 217-seat constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution for the country is the first major democratic test of the Tunisian popular uprising that overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali - now in exile in Saudi Arabia – and kickstarted the Arab Spring.

Anti-regime activists rewarded

The two centre-left parties vying for second place are the Congress for the Republic, led by doctor and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, and Ettakatol, a socialist party led by Mustafa Ben Jaafar, also a doctor and a longtime foe of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the liberal party most critical of Ennahda, conceded defeat.

Election officials reported only minor problems in Sunday’s vote, which saw the Ennahda party win a plurality of roughly 40 percent, according to initial tallies.

According to FRANCE 24’s Jacob Lippincott in Tunis, a unity government between Ennahda and the two leading centre-left parties is indeed a feasible scenario, as “all three of the parties are led by activists who were very active against the former regime”.

An unprecedented 90 percent of voters showed up to cast a ballot in the first election of the Arab Spring, the outcome of which will designate an assembly to draw up a new constitution and appoint an interim president and government until subsequent elections in late 2012 or early 2013.

Liberals accuse Ennahda of a ‘façade of moderation’

Ennahda’s top official, Rachid Ghannouchi, has emphasised that he will not impose any strict Islamic ethical code on Tunisia, instead focusing on what Lippincott calls “a quite moderate platform” of economic and internal security reforms. In that sense, the party’s platform could loosely follow the outlines of the Islamic model of Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Furthermore, Lippincott pointed out, “Ennahda has taken great lengths to convince the West that they are moderate and won’t harm Western investments and interests”.

Ennahda’s victory represents a resounding comeback for a party that was forced underground by a government ban and saw many of its most loyal followers thrown in prison.

The party’s resurgence has been attributed to a robust and well-funded campaign that appealed to a wide cross-section of Tunisians: devout Muslims who felt they had to stifle their faith under a tough secular regime, as well as those Tunisians who disregard Islamic restrictions and live more Western lifestyles.

But the rise of the party has provoked some anxiety in Tunisia, with secularist critics arguing that Ennahda has a more radical agenda than it advertises, especially in rural areas. “Opponents accuse the party of having a façade of moderation, but say that once Ennahda gains power, they’ll become hardline,” Lippincott said, adding, however, that “there’s no evidence to support these theories”.

Tunisia, a former French colony with firm secular traditions, was the first country in the region to see its anti-regime outrage spill out into the streets after a vendor set himself on fire last December to protest against state repression and poor economic conditions. The popular uprising that ensued forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia the following month.

The revolution that swept Tunisia provided the impetus for a wave of pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, driving autocratic leaders in Egypt and Libya from power and drawing residents of Syria and Yemen to widespread demonstrations.

Those calls for a new direction were echoed powerfully in the Tunisian vote. “That seemed to be the most important thing in this election,” noted Lippincott. “Voting for change, and to rebuild democracy after so many decades of dictatorship.”

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