TUNIS – Voting in Tunisia’s first elections since the ouster of longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has started, with early voting for Tunisians living abroad and hopes riding on a successful democratic transition for the first country in the region to witness a revolt this year.
As voting begins for the formation of a constitutional assembly and international organizations and journalists convene in Tunisia to cover Sunday’s elections, many observers are paying attention to Tunisia's political battle, billed as a showdown between secularists and Islamists vying for the heart of the country. But Tunisians insist that their story is more nuanced.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamic-oriented Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, drew attention this week when he suggested in several interviews that his party would win a majority in the upcoming parliament. However, at a press conference in Tunis on Wednesday, Ghannouchi warned that "there is a risk of the election results being manipulated.”
“If there is manipulation, we will rejoin the forces and the guardians of the revolution which ousted Ben Ali and the first [interim] government. We are ready to oust up to ten governments if needed,” he was quoted as saying.
The comment has drawn concern from other Tunisian political parties, including the the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).
“We are not going to work with them, especially after this last declaration,” says Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the PDP’s executive committee. However, PDP insists that it will respect the results of the election, regardless of the results. “We believe these elections will be fair. We will accept them because we are democrats. If Ennahda wins the majority, we will accept the result.”
Ennahda insists on shucking the “Islamist” label, instead saying that it is a party with an Arab-Islamic “reference.”
“For us, the respect of Islam, of our history, our civilization, that’s the base of our party,” says Nourreddine Arbaoui, a member of Ennahda's political bureau.
“The elite has a problem with Muslim culture. They have a problem with the history and culture of the Tunisian people. Others talk of Islam as a historic reality, but for us it is also the future,” says Arbaoui, who suggests that Ennahda’s position on the issue explains its popularity with voters.
However, some other parties deny that this is the case, saying that Ennahda is using the issue of religion to divide the country.
Bouazzi decries charges that parties like the PDP are not Muslim as lies. “Ninety-nine percent of Tunisians are Arabic speakers, they are Muslims, we are a very homogenous people and we respect this identity … So what they are saying, that we are not Muslim, this is very dangerous, because they are trying to characterize us as enemies of Islam so they can make war against us.”
Other parties have also made it clear that they respect Tunisia’s religious and cultural history.
“We believe that our Arab-Islamic values are the origin of our identity, and this identity was enhanced by the various civilizations that crossed Tunisia,” says one advisor to Mostafa Ben Jaafar, the secretary general of center-left Ettakatol Party.
Some, however, believe that Tunisian culture is unique, and that Arab and Islamic influences do not play such a large role in modern Tunisian life.
“We have primarily a Tunisian identity, not an Arab or Muslim identity,” says Omar Shabou, president of the Tunisian Reformist Movement political party and a self-proclaimed admirer of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who kept tight control over Islamic preaching and modeled the state along secular lines.
Tensions between Islamists and secular Tunisians made headlines last week when a series of demonstrations over the issues of religion and free speech took place in Tunis. Protests, described by some as sparked by Salafis, or fundamentalist Muslims, drew hundreds of people who targeted private television station Nessma TV for showing the film “Persepolis,” which includes a scene depicting God.
Police used tear gas on the protesters after violent confrontations broke out, and some protesters attempted to light fire to the house of one of Nessma TV’s executives with petrol bombs.
“The Islamists did not make the protests. They exploited them,” says one top labor union official and independent political candidate who did not want to be named due to an official ban on candidates speaking to the foreign press.
“In the Wahhabi way of Islam, the non-believers should be confronted, and [Ennahda] is trying to divide Tunisian people between 'believers,' what for them means 'Renaissance,' and 'non-believers,' what for them means other secular parties,” says Bouazzi.
Ennahda's party newspaper, Al-Fajr, ran a photo of protesters the day of the rally on Friday, urging people to go out and join the demonstrations. However, Ennahda later in the day condemned the violence that took place.
“We are against violence. We are not with the Salafis,” says Arbaoui. “But secular Tunisians provoked people. If you say ‘I don’t believe in God' – you are free to say that of course – but you are not free to say it in the streets.”
Thousands of Tunisians held a peaceful counter-rally on Sunday in what they called a “Freedom March.”
“My religion is sacred, and so is my freedom,” read one poster, while another read “Don’t touch my liberty.”
With resurgent political movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya following the toppling of old regimes that silenced Islamist political voices for decades, many have speculated whether political Islam will end up as the dominant force after elections. However, the fight over religion may be tied to other cultural issues.
French culture in particular has made its mark on Tunisian society. French is the country's second language and official documents are often published in both Arabic and French. French is still present in the education system, to varying degrees depending on the region and institution, and most Tunisians living abroad live in France.
But Ennahda sees French influence as essentially alien to Tunisian culture.
“There are historic, colonial ties, and now political, cultural and economic ties [between France and Tunisia],” says Arbaoui, “but the root [of the relationship] was colonial. We are open to all cultures, but we are for cultural independence.”
Regardless of the political battles being waged, Tunisia's Independent High Elections Committee is working hard to make sure that the elections are carried out fairly and transparently. With the spotlight on Tunisia, many hope that its divisions over religion, culture and identity remain a sideshow that will not steer the course of the country's first ever free election.