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Posted at 01:01 PM ET, 10/05/2011

Tunisian leader to the West: Do not fear Islamists


(Jewel Samad — AFP/Getty Images)

Islamists are poised to do well in elections this month in Tunisia, the first of the “Arab Spring” countries to choose new representatives. But the nation’s prime minister has a message for the West: Fear not.

“All Islamist parties are not the same,” Beji Caid Essebsi said in an interview Wednesday.

Indeed, American officials are cautiously optimistic about Tunisia’s chances of transitioning to democracy. The election features a dizzying array of over 100 parties, and is being overseen by an independent commission.

Opinion polls indicate that an Islamist party, al-Nahda, could get the most votes in the Oct. 23 balloting, which will choose an assembly to rewrite Tunisia’s constitution.

Essebsi, 84, noted that Tunisia’s electoral system favors small parties, not big ones — so al-Nahda, sometimes rendered as Ennahda — might get less seats than the polls suggest. In addition, he said, the Islamist party had accepted certain conditions, including that half of all candidates must be female.

“There’s a red line on which we all agree,” which is to maintain the 1959 constitution’s definition of Tunisia as a Muslim country — but “not an Islamic republic,” he said.

“We respect every religion,” he added. “Everyone is free to practice his religion freely. ... In the Tunisian parliament we have even Jews.”

The head of al-Nahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, recently told Reuters that his party “will not retreat” from modernizing reforms instituted after Tunisia became independent. He said the party respects democracy and women’s rights. Some secular groups, however, are worried.

Essebsi is a longtime senior official in Tunisia’s authoritarian governments, which were strongly opposed to Islamist movements. He was, however, seen as somewhat of a reformist. During his visit to Washington this week, Essebsi plans to thank President Obama for his support of the January revolution that ousted hard-line President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But Essebsi also is hoping for more support, particularly to help the ailing economy.

“The revolution in Tunisia has to succeed in order to serve as an example for others in the region,” he said.

Tunisia has suffered from a sharp drop in tourism, and its government is anxious to ease the high level of youth unemployment.

The Obama administration has proposed economic “enterprise” funds to help small businesses in Tunisia and Egypt. But it’s still unclear whether Congress will sign off on the idea.

In addition, a major U.S. aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), announced last week that Tunisia will be eligible for one of its “threshold” grants, which are usually between $10 million and $20 million. But the country did not qualify for the agency’s higher-level “compact” grants of $200 million or more.

“It wasn’t nice news,” Essebsi said.

Sheila Herrling, vice president for policy evaluation at MCC, said Tunisia hadn’t met the requirements for democratic governance. “But we are really, really excited about the opportunity that the threshold program will bring for engagement in Tunisia,” she said.

Essebsi said numerous factors would help Tunisia in its transition: its relatively high education levels, sizable middle class, history of women’s rights and “the determination of Tunisian people to succeed in this democracy.”

Steve McInerny, head of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a think tank, agreed that if the election goes smoothly, Tunisia will be well-positioned to escape its authoritarian past.

“Generally things are going pretty well — much better now than people feared a few months ago,” he said.

By  |  01:01 PM ET, 10/05/2011

 
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