TUNIS, Tunisia – This nation that inspired revolution across the Arab world is facing another bellwether moment that may again foreshadow what happens in Egypt, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries in the intensifying battle between secularists and Islamists over the role of religion in shaping public life.
Tunisians will vote today for a constituent assembly that will set the course of a new government and write the nation’s laws. Islamists, suppressed for decades by autocratic rule, are poised to win big, a prospect that worries liberals and secularists about the future of civil liberties.
The pressing concerns facing Tunisia mirror those of other countries trying to advance beyond the grip of tyrants. Voters here say they do not want the vital issues of joblessness, economic problems and widening youth disenchantment to be eclipsed by an Islamic agenda.
But ambitions of Islamists have been simmering for years in a region where police states arrested their leaders and muffled the voices of fiery clerics. Freedoms brought by the Arab Spring are reigniting debates between Islamists and secularists, but also between ultraconservative and moderate Muslims over how deeply religion should permeate society.
In Tunisia, where results of today’s vote are expected in a few days, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, or Renaissance, is poised to win about 35 percent of the constituent assembly, which will draft a new constitution and pave the way for presidential elections. Banned under deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, Ennahda’s leadership, including founder Rachid Ghannouchi, who lived for years in exile, has pledged commitment to pluralism and human rights.
It’s a vision that would fashion Tunisia into a contemporary Islamist democracy guaranteeing civil freedoms and equality. That’s an attractive notion for many voters who lived under a secular dictatorship that for years seemed intent on erasing the nation’s religious fabric to transform Tunisia, one of the Arab world’s best educated and most cosmopolitan societies, into the France of North Africa.
The problem for Ennahda is finding a strategy that satisfies moderate and conservative Muslims while drawing in a younger generation driven more by technology and progressive ideas than the idiosyncrasies of Shariah law.
No matter how much Ennahda leaders talk about social equality, there is deep suspicion of Islamist intentions in a nation that prides itself as the most pro-women’s rights country in the Arab world. Tunisia is the only Arab state to prohibit polygamy and forced unilateral divorce.
Many fear that despite the harmony in the Islamist rhetoric, rights would be endangered and a theocracy would rise if Ennahda and its allies dominate the constituent assembly.
“The Islamists talk out of both sides of their mouth,” said Aida Khemiri, a university student. “It makes me scared. … Under Ennahda, everything would become taboo in the end.”