Giving Tunisia's New Islamist Leaders the Benefit of the Doubt


Tunisia's historic election is over, and we should most likely get used to the results: The Islamists have won, with the moderate Ennahda party claiming victory. But is this reason to worry for the state of Tunisia, its people, and the goals of its revolution?

No. At least not yet, given that there are several signs that things are still on track in Tunisia, including the limited power of Tunisia’s governing Constituent Assembly (which will write a new constitution), both domestic and international pressure to maintain democracy, and the pluralism of the interim government.

Given that the previous regime forcibly instituted secularism, it is no surprise that many Tunisians decided to put into power a political body that represents the religion of 98% of its people, a clear sign that much of the Tunisian population was looking to distance itself as far as possible from the previous regime. Where former Tunisian president Ben Ali stifled religious freedoms, the new Tunisia hopes to embrace it.

However, many secularists within Tunisia — a country whose policies have unarguably long been the most progressive in North Africa — are afraid that this move will signal a reversal of the good that came along with the 54 years of imposed secularism that began with the first Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba's tenure. This is especially true in the area of women’s rights, the country’s greatest achievement, given that the only popular party with a female head, the Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP), did much poorer than expected, and that this showing may signal to the Assembly that Tunisians aren’t as concerned with maintaining women’s rights as previously suggested.

Though this fear is legitimate, there are also reasons for optimism that would prevent Tunisia from approaching anything close to Iran in 1979 (as some alarmists have suggested), which has become the paradigm for secularist’s post-revolutionary fears in the MENA region. While the political climate will undoubtedly become more religiously conservative, this does not mean that Ennahda's victory presupposes the transition from a secular dictatorship into a theocratic one, or that its comparatively progressive women's rights policies will fatalistically suffer a complete reversion with an Islamic force in power.

Firstly, there will be another election in one year, as the current assembly is only granted the power to form an interim government until that election. If Ennahda’s performance is ineffective, especially in regards to the economy, Tunisians will be given a chance fairly shortly to change directions.

Secondly, given Tunisia's historic dependence on Western tourism, and the consensus amongst Tunisia's parties that successful economic reform depends on close economic relations with Western states, mainly the U.S. (who currently is held within high esteem in amongst the Tunisian population thanks to its impartial stance during the revolution, contrasted with France, which sided with Ali, and Canada, which has housed much of Ali’s family), there will be some international pressure to sustain democracy that will be coupled with the domestic pressure brought about by the secularists, the youth, and the educated.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the structure of the new Tunisian polity essentially guarantees Ennahda’s power will be limited. Though Ennahda is headed for just over one-third of the seats within the new Constituent Assembly that will draft the new constitution, it will not gain the majority, and it has to answer to other parties that will hold influence within the assembly, parties which are almost exclusively secular. It has already announced it will look to form a coalition with two of the leftist, secular parties that did better than anticipated, Congres pour la République (CPR) and Ettakatol. CPR is headed by staunch human rights and civil liberties activist, Moncef Marzouki, and its platform is focused on maintaining individual and social freedoms outlined in the UDHR, establishing a separation of powers and a system of decentralization. Meanwhile, Ettakatol’s platform revolved around eliminating corruption through transparency and further progressing Tunisian women’s rights by imposing official condemnation against rape and reforming inheritance laws to be more egalitarian.

Ennahda's rhetoric while campaigning has focused on the coexistence of Islam and democracy, its self-description as “moderate,” its declaration to continue Tunisian’s progressive gender rights, and its desire to continue allowing certain secular customs such as the allowance to consume alcohol and wear bikinis at Tunisia’s many beaches. Now it is time for them to live up to the campaign rhetoric, and given that Tunisians voted them in through a free and fair election, they deserve every chance to prove themselves. Before Westerners begin hitting the panic button, we must remember first and foremost that this is what many Tunisians wanted. And if they end up wanting something different later, they fought for that right as well.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons