November 30, 2011

AS EGYPTIANS went to the polls this week, a Tunisian political leader was in Washington with a useful reminder: Islamic-oriented parties are not necessarily the enemy of democracy.

Tunisia, you may recall, is where the Arab Spring began, when a hapless fruit peddler, driven to his wit’s end by corruption and official harassment, set himself on fire. That sparked a popular uprising, which sent Tunisia’s dictator fleeing, emboldened protesters from Libya to Egypt to Yemen to Syria, and put Tunisia itself — a North African nation of about 10 million people — on the path to democracy.

In October, Tunisians held a successful election, in which the Islamist party Ennahda won the leading share of the popular vote and of seats in the assembly that will appoint a government and draw up a constitution. The head of that party, Rashid Ghannouchi, has been in Washington this week. His chief message, as he said during a visit to The Post, is that “religion is not in contradiction with democracy and not in contradiction with human rights and justice.”

Ennahda has formed a coalition with non-religious parties. It put many women on its slate of candidates. It has committed to a Tunisia in which men and women, believers and nonbelievers, will be welcome to participate.

An auspicious start does not guarantee that religious parties will remain faithful to democracy over time. And, as Mr. Ghannouchi acknowledged, the situation in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to do well in the first election, is more complicated. For example, at least 10 percent of Egyptians are Christians, which is not the case in Tunisia, he noted.

But Mr. Ghannouchi said that the dictators’ persecution of moderate Islamists — he was jailed, tortured and eventually exiled — left the field open to more radical Islamist forces. “One of the big changes of the Arab Spring is not just the fall of dictators but also that terrorism has been highly damaged, because terrorists used to say that they are the only way to get rid of dictators,” Mr. Ghannouchi said.

There are many ways the Arab Awakening might veer off track, and religion-inspired constriction of freedom is one. But so far in Egypt, the greatest threat to democracy has come from the military rulers. In any true Arab democracy, Islamist parties will win a lot of votes. As long as they are willing to play by the rules, those parties should not be treated as a specter to be feared.