Worldview: Tunisian elections a key test of democracy

Tunisians women read election wall posters in Tunis on Saturday.
Tunisians women read election wall posters in Tunis on Saturday. (AMINE LANDOULSI / Associated Press)
Posted: October 23, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia - Today's election in Tunisia will affect the Middle East more than the grisly death of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

Tunisia and Libya provide opposing models of how an Arab revolution can play out. Gadhafi was ousted by civil war and died by the gun, a pattern that Syria and Yemen seem doomed to follow.

But small, middle-class Tunisia made a peaceful revolution that inspired the rest of the region. Now its elections - the first of the Arab Spring - may provide crucial answers to two linked questions:

Can any Arab country successfully transit from despotism to democracy? And can any Arab country find a formula by which Islam and democracy can coexist?

Both questions were in play in Tunis on the campaign's last day, as chic women distributed fliers for the leftist Democratic Pole movement on Tunis' leafy main boulevard, and caravans of honking cars carted supporters of the Islamist Al-Nahda party to a final rally.

At the outdoor rally grounds, the impressive organizational skills of Al-Nahda were on display, as lines of young men in T-shirts emblazoned with their party's logo shepherded thousands of supporters to plastic chairs (separate sections for men and women). Veiled women handed out packets of information in English and French to the foreign press, and others staffed an Islamic bookstall at the entrance.

Al-Nahda, which was banned under the previous regime and which conducted violent attacks in the 1990s, quickly rebuilt itself, drawing manpower and donations from thousands who were imprisoned in past decades. Its leaders, including founder and longtime exile Rashid Ghannouchi (whom I will interview for my next column), insist they now want to play by democratic rules. They say they won't change the liberal Tunisian family-status law that protects women's rights.

But many in Tunisia's secular, educated middle class, especially women, distrust those promises. They accuse Al-Nahda of "double discourse," especially Ghannouchi. They say he talks moderately about democracy to a Western audience, while, for example, he called for a caliphate when speaking in Cairo. Al-Nahda leaders insist they don't want a religious state, but at the rally I attended, one candidate told the crowd, "Sharia should be the reference for all laws."

So the proof of the Islamists' intentions will only come after elections.

"I am afraid," Mona Ayari, a vocational-school teacher and candidate in Tunis for the Democratic Pole movement, says as she hands out fliers. "We can't be laissez-faire. When I meet women voting for Al-Nahda, I say, 'Don't be foolish.' "

These fears are palpable. When I interviewed women at the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, an organization that trains them for jobs, the staff and trainees burst into passionate argument between those who feared Al-Nahda and those who embraced it.

"The Islamists won't change things overnight," said Chema Gargouri, president of the association, "but they will do it slowly, slowly."

Yet, Al-Nahda has benefited from the inexperience of centrist and center-left parties that didn't get their message across to voters or present appealing leaders. These elections are confusing - 60 parties are competing to elect an assembly that will write a constitution - so new voters may gravitate toward a known quantity.

"Al-Nahda is a brand like Coca-Cola," Gargouri said. "It doesn't need to make itself known. The others have to explain who they are."

And the party has gained from its image as the primary victim of the previous regime. "They suffered so," one veiled middle-aged woman told me emotionally, hand on her heart, as she rushed to the rally with her small daughters. "They are free now, so we are free." The party is a vocal voice for morality based on Islam, which plays on public anger at corruption but which can tar opponents as "bad Muslims."

With tensions so high, many here wonder how the new assembly will function. Polls indicate Al-Nahda will get about 25 percent, a likely plurality; several center and center-left parties may form a coalition to counter it. Tunisia's future may depend on whether Al-Nahda sticks to its democratic pledges.

The hopeful signs I saw revolve around the determination of many Tunisians, especially the large women's movement, to hold Al-Nahda to its promises. Tunisia is not Iran, or Algeria, or Iraq, where Islamists have militias (although small salafi groups, far to the right of Al-Nahda, have been making trouble). Even several women who were supporters of Al-Nahda told me they'd go to the streets if the party threatened their rights.

And if centrists and social democrats hold firm in the new assembly, the Islamists may have to compromise and hew to their pledge to seek consensus. "Tunisia will be a laboratory," Gargouri said. "We can't jump to democracy overnight. Let's create a democracy that can coexist with religion. Maybe we can create a new model."

That would be crucial for the region, but does she really think it is possible? She said, "Nobody knows."

E-mail Trudy Rubin at


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