Can Tunisia's New Democracy Bridge the Islamist-Secular Divide?

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However Tunisia's political parties fare in the country's first real election, their biggest challenge -- and the one that could determine the fate of Tunisia's democratic experiment -- will not be winning votes but learning how to cooperate with one another

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A supporter of the Party Democratic Progress (PDP) waves a Tunisian flag during a rally / Reuters

TUNIS, Tunisia -- Even before voters went to the polls on Sunday, the leader of Tunisia's largest political party was beaming with pride. Rached Ghannouchi, a 70-year-old Islamist leader of the al-Nahda party, has been waiting for this day for two decades. His moderate religious party was allowed back into Tunisia in March after this year's revolution ousted the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. And just months after its rebirth, al-Nahda's political machinery has commanding dominance. "We believe that we will be the number one party in the country," he told an audience of local and foreign journalists on Thursday, just a day before the campaign came to a close. "We are ready to serve our people at the level of government."

Election results likely won't be officially announced until sometime Tuesday. But there is little doubt that Ghannouchi's party will win a significant number of the 217 seat-body that will make up a Constituent Assembly -- the next step in this country's democratic transition. The new assembly will set the rules for Tunisia's democratic transition over the coming year, writing a new constitution and appointing a new caretaker government. An incredible 1,517 lists of candidates are contesting for seats, but only al-Nahda is expected to garner more than a quarter of the vote.

Yet if al-Nahda wins the most seats, it still will not have won the right to lead Tunisia's transition. The real battle will begin the morning after, when everyone, including al-Nahda, will have to form coalitions that can actually govern. "The elections are a process of elimination for the small parties," says Ahmed Lounnaies, a long-serving Tunisian diplomat who acted as foreign minister in the first cabinet formed after the revolution. The second phase -- the most important one -- will begin when the plethora of political parties form coalitions amongst themselves that can govern. And if enough small parties get together, they could challenge al-Nahda's otherwise uncontested heft.

Across town, tucked into a small corner along Tunis's main street, a 63-year old lawyer offers one such alternative. More than two decades ago, Abdellfattah Mourou co-founded with Ghannouchi the party that would become al-Nahda; the two were allies, friends, and compatriots in opposition to Ben Ali's regime. But now Mourou's running independently. He says that al-Nahda's Islamist views are too strong for Tunisia -- a country that has long been one of the Arab world's most moderate. After the voting is done and the results are announced, he's ready to form a coalition with other independent candidates.

"The centrists can do many things if they are united, if they have the same program," he tells me. And Mourou is far from the only al-Nahda opponent to think so. The largest secular party, the Party for Democratic Progress (PDP), announced in early October that it was interested in forming an alliance with several other parties, including a prominent secular party called Ettakatol and the Modern Democratic Pole. Mohammed Bennour, spokesman of Ettakatol, confirmed in an interview on Friday that his party was already in discussions with these very groups.

Whether someone can contest al-Nahda in the Constituent Assembly matters for more than just politics. Tunisia's yet unclarified identity -- at the forefront of political debate in recent months -- could be decided by how power is divided in the coming transitional phase. Tunisia has a long history of secular rights; the country's current constitution includes a "personal status code" that guarantees the rights of women, bans polygamy, and ensures free practice of religion. Now the role of religion in public life is once again open for debate. Ghannouchi on one hand and more secular thinkers like Mourou on the other represent two ways of thinking here about the direction that Tunisia's new democratic government should go. On al-Nahda's side is a story about integrating Islam into the state in a way that hasn't existed before -- though the party still vows to endorse pluralism and the rights of all. Mourou -- and those such as PDP and Ettakatol who are even more secular -- see a state separate from religion and the role of Islam as symbolic, if anything at all.

The stakes of that debate could hardly be higher, as Tunisians are keenly aware. The country sparked the Arab spring in December and January when months-long protests collapsed a dictatorial regime, sending shockwaves into Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Now as the first country to hold an election, Tunisia stands to set the tone again -- not just of its next phase but also of the future for Arab democracy. Whether it adopts a secular or Islamist model or something in between could foreshadow further transitions across the region.

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Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East.

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