x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tunisia holds elections for new national assembly

Election will determine whether parties that fought over Tunisia's future can overcome differences to draft new constitution and revive economy.

Tunisian women of Islamist Ennahda party chant slogans during a rally of the Tunisian Ennahda Islamist party that was long outlawed by authorities in SIdi Bechir district in Tunis on Tuesday ahead of Tunisia's landmark Oct. 23 election.
Tunisian women of Islamist Ennahda party chant slogans during a rally of the Tunisian Ennahda Islamist party that was long outlawed by authorities in SIdi Bechir district in Tunis on Tuesday ahead of Tunisia's landmark Oct. 23 election.

TUNIS // Few Tunisians doubt that the moderate Islamist party Ennahda will cruise to an easy first place in elections on Sunday. But campaign manager Hassen Beldi is still worried about image.

"For 23 years Ben Ali made people fear Ennahda," he said. "That we'd impose the veil, that we would allow four wives, and so on."

The removal of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January unleashed a culture war of sorts pitting secularist parties against Ennahda, a quickly rising force.

Sunday's election will pose a new question: whether parties that have fought bitterly for Tunisia's future can now work together on badly needed political and economic reform.

The election will create a national assembly that will draft a new constitution and set up a fresh interim government.

A host of tricky challenges lie ahead, from designing the architecture of a new state to reviving a moribund economy.

On the working-class streets of south Tunis, where Mr Beldi runs Ennahda's district campaign, locals are focused on immediate concerns.

"Their demands are not about the constitution," he said, as the office bustled around him in preparation for an evening meeting. "They want jobs, a better quality of life, day-to-day things."

Many also worry that Ennahda's moderate Islamist rhetoric masks a radical agenda, he said.

For sceptics, "Ennahda are an unknown quantity," said Michael Willis, a professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University. "They're a broad movement with both moderates and radicals, which creates uncertainty over who speaks for the party."

Founded in the late 1970s, Ennahda suffered three decades of persecution by Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president and a staunch secularist.

Thousands of Ennahda activists accused of plotting violence were jailed or driven abroad, including the movement's leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who was exiled to Britain.

Two weeks after Ben Ali's departure in January, Mr Ghannouchi jetted back to Tunis, where crowds at the airport gave him a rapturous welcome.

However, also present at the airport were a small knot of women protesting his return.

Ennahda's swift evolution from movement to political party has alarmed Tunisians who see it as a threat to liberal values and advances on women's rights.

"They've seen Islamist movements in other countries that are more violent and authoritarian, and fear that whatever Ennahda say, they may be headed in the same direction," Mr Willis said.

Meanwhile, liberal-minded Tunisians have been further rattled by the emergence of Tunisia's deeply conservative Salafi movement, whose demonstrations have sometimes ended in clashes with police.

Twice this month, Salafi activists have led protests in Tunis against a TV station that aired the animated film Persepolis, deemed blasphemous because it contains an image of God.

Riot police clashed with protesters and stone-throwing youths, while a mob tried to set fire to the TV station owner's house.

While Ennahda has condemned violence, some secularist parties have seized on such incidents to highlight the dangers of religious conservatism in general.

The result is "a relative polarisation of the political debate on the role of religion in public life," said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a North Africa expert at Control Risks, a British risk-assessment firm.

Across Tunis from Mr Beldi's office, Karim Skik runs campaigning in the northern suburbs for the Pole Democratique Moderniste (PDM), a bloc of leftist parties and independents.

The PDM wants stronger local government, a strong central welfare state and secular values, and has made a point of naming women to head half of its electoral lists, Mr Skik said.

"We want a Tunisia open to the world, with all religions equal," he said. "Ennahda's project frightens us modernists. That's why we're telling people to read between the lines."

Ennahda counters that it wants to emphasise Tunisia's Arab-Muslim heritage while embracing democracy and respecting women's rights.

"In this district, we have five men on the list and four women - a diversity of people," said Mr Beldi, pointing out candidate photos on a campaign flyer. "This person is a professor. This one a lawyer. This one a doctor."

For Mr Beldi, claims that Ennahda would enforce hard-line Islamist strictures distract from more important issues.

"We want to talk to people about our political programme," he said. "For example, that we want a parliamentary system instead of a presidential one, because the presidential system led in the past to dictatorship."

Ennadha is widely expected to come first in elections but not to take a majority of votes, analysts said, with the secularist Democratic Progressive Party a potential second-place winner.

That could lead to alliances among Ennahda and secularist parties on reforms such as fighting corruption and restructuring Tunisia's administration, said Mr Gallopin.

Whatever balance of power finally emerges from elections on Sunday, the Islamist-secularist divide "is likely to remain a fault line of Tunisia's political scene for the foreseeable future," Mr Gallopin said.