Commentary: Tunisia elections outcome worries women, progressives

The Miami HeraldNovember 2, 2011 

To get a better idea of what the future holds in the Middle East, keep a close eye on Tunisia. The country whose people lit the spark of the ongoing Arab uprisings continues to lead the way. It has just held its first elections, the first in the region.

As everyone expected, the Islamic party Ennahda won the largest number of votes.

Ennahda, the renaissance, is modeled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It aims to give Islam a greater role in the country, but it has gone to great lengths to reassure everyone that it is a moderate Islamic, not Islamist, party that will preserve individual freedoms.

But not everyone believes them.

Tunisia was by far the most liberal country in the Middle East under the dictatorship of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the first dictator toppled in the Arab Spring, who fled the country earlier this year after ruling for 23 years.

Women had more equality in the North African country of 10 million than anywhere else in the Arab world. After Ben Ali left, a caretaker government took over and organized a transparent election. About 100 parties participated and turnout was exhilaratingly strong.

As in the rest of the Middle East, the Islamic movement is the best organized force in the country. Ben Ali imprisoned its leaders and banned the group, but Islam remained a strong force and the party went underground and remained active. The first lesson from Tunisia, hardly a surprise, is that Islamic parties will probably win every first election in the Middle East.

When Ben Ali fled and the party’s leader Rached Ghannouchi returned home triumphantly after more than 20 years in exile, Ennahda already had a well-built organization and the automatic support of devout Muslims throughout Tunisia. Liberals had probably more support than they do anywhere else in the region, but they had a lot of ground to make up. They worked hard, but it was not enough.

For liberals everywhere, the results of the Tunisian election have to count as a disappointment, even if Ennahda proves true to its word.

Nowhere in the Arab world are progressive forces stronger. If they could not put on a good performance there, there is little hope they can do it anywhere else; at least in the first round of elections, before anyone has a chance to govern and face voters on their record.

Secular groups with strong participation from women campaigned arduously and had high hopes of putting on a strong performance. They did not expect to win, but they fared worse than expected. The Islamic party had the benefit of strong financial support from abroad — which was eventually banned by election officials. And the Muslim party, despite its protestations to the contrary, also had the benefit of being viewed by many Tunisians as the “party of God.”

Whatever the reasons, liberals were shocked by the results. Reporters on the ground quoted women, in particular, saying they were experiencing a “general desolation and frustration.” A university student called it, “a day of mourning not only for women but for all democrats.”

Ennahda leaders are repeating their mantra: “We respect the rights of women,” said Nourredine Bhiri, noting the party’s support for “equality between Tunisians whatever their religion, their gender, or their social status.”

The victory, about 40 percent of the vote, means the Islamic party will need to form a coalition. It will put together an interim government that will write the country’s new constitution. The stakes are enormous.

The word among many democrats is that the Islamic party is saying the right words, especially to foreigners, but planning a much less pluralistic, form of government.

The current Prime Minister, Beji Caid Sebsi, reflected the widespread misgivings when he said “I can’t judge (Ennahda’s) intentions.” But he added, “I can only judge by what’s public, and so far it’s positive.”

If Tunisia is the first project of the democratic Arab world, its tiny Jewish community is the canary in its coalmine. After 3,000 years in Tunisia, the number of Jews has fallen precipitously from about 100,000 to about 1,500. It is one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world, where millions of Jews once lived. The head of the community, 85-year-old Roger Bismuth, told a reporter, “I love to live here and will never leave my community, my country.” But he confessed he was nervous about the agenda of Islamic parties, saying “it may not be so good for us.”

Every country is different, but there is much we will learn from what happens in Tunisia. If Islamic forces go back on their word and fail to enshrine women’s rights, rule of law, and individual freedoms, we will know democratic freedom will not emerge from the Arab Spring.

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