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

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.

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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.

It would be difficult to overstate how pronounced the debate between Islamist and secular has been here. The ousting of former President Ben Ali created the first opportunity Tunisia has had since its independence from France to debate its very nature in open -- and there were no shortage of voices looking to be heard. More than 100 parties have registered since the fall of Ben Ali, most of which are new. Everyone from communists to Islamists to secular and moderate parties are now represented, and likely several times over. So numerous are the options for Tunisian voters that parties have taken to advertising their identification number rather than their name; there are simply too many candidates to remember.

The sudden leveling of the political playing field has created some real drama in recent months. People of all political persuasions, long repressed or co-opted, were suddenly allowed into the conversation. Most visibly, this has meant that Tunisia's Islamists emerged in force. al-Nahda is the largest, and most organized, of these movements. But there are those who are even more vocal, some of them extreme. The country's Salafists, for example -- conservative Muslims who have opposed democracy as well as the secular state -- have protested in force. Last Friday, they took to the streets in protest that the animated film Persepolis was shown on television, depicted God in cartoon form -- a perceived offense to Islam. Secularists followed with their own counter protest at what they believed to be a threat to free speech.

There have also been more subtle battles in the political sphere, where parties on both sides of the Islamist-secular split accuse their opponents of slander. Ghannouchi has repeatedly accused the secular parties of fear mongering, portraying al-Nahda's positions as more extreme than the reality. One example came in the final days of the three-week-long official campaign. Tight rules governed the conduct of party activities; they were prohibited from buying television or radio advertisements or putting up posters, aside from in a designated public space. Last week, the secular Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) said that this put it at a disadvantage, since al-Nahda could simply use mosques to propagate its message. al-Nahda, for its part, claims that it has followed the rules to the letter. "Never, never, never do we intervene in mosques," the party's spokesman, Noureddine Bhiri told me on Thursday.

Secular parties also expressed alarm at al-Nahda's claims toward the end of campaign that it would garner a plurality of votes. "It's a declaration that is stoking the flames [of conflict,]" says Bennour of Ettakatol. Similarly, the PDP on Thursday called such claims a "threat to the stability of the country." As voting took place on Sunday, secular parties also worried that al-Nahda was pressuring voters just before they entered, or even inside the polls.

All this foreshadows the politicking that must be done in the coming weeks -- and is already going on in private between the party leaders. Al-Nahda has an advantage in coalition building; as the bigger party, it would likely need only a few coalition partners to form a cohesive majority. Already, the party has announced that it will be looking to make such alliances after the elections, the party's leadership says.

"The Islamists, when we met with them, told us that they have no intention of governing alone even if they win a majority of the vote -- that they are looking for a coalition," said Marwan Muasher, a leader of the National Democratic Institute's observation mission and a former foreign minister of Jordan in an interview on Sunday.

Interestingly, the need to form coalitions has pushed the party toward the center. Al-Nahda has taken pains to make itself seem as inclusive as possible in recent days."The key word for us is consensus building," Ghannouchi announced on Wednesday. Asked specifically about building a center coalition, he replied: "The Tunisian people are moderate and this is one of the secrets of al-Nahda's popularity."

Many others also believe that the center is where Tunisia's democracy will mostly land. "The challenge is to bring everyone to the middle," agrees Radwan Masmoudi, an independent candidate who is running on Mourou's list and heads of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which now has an office in Tunisia. "I think everyone understands that we have to work together."

Still, the question of Tunisia's identity will hang over the new government no matter where the coalitions divide. Everyone knows the precedent Tunisia's new system could set elsewhere, argues Muasher. "The challenge in the Arab world is going to be building pluralistic societies." He continues, "Everybody, and particular the political parties, understands that this time the uprisings cannot fail and lead once again to autocracies. If this time is to be different, the commitment to diversity and pluralism at all times has to be iron solid."

"If that does take place, and in particular if the elections in Egypt are to result in the same commitment to diversity, these two elections would have huge repercussions for the Arab world -- and vice-verse. If they don't go well, then I'm afraid we will once again move from one autocratic system to another."