Tunisia Islamists reemerge as political force

October 10, 2011

Tunisia’s Communist Workers’ party has rebranded itself. Gone is the reference to communism. The party has been renamed Revolutionary Alternative, and, perhaps more surprising, a woman with a Muslim headscarf has been added to its list of candidates in the town of Kasserine.

Ahead of the first democratic election on Oct. 23, even the communists are keen to show that they count observant Muslims among their candidates. The reasoning is simple. Opinion polls show that the moderately Islamist Nahda party is likely to lead the field in the vote for a constituent assembly that will draft a democratic constitution.

The election will be the first in the political transitions under way in the Middle East and north Africa. Campaign events organized by Nahda begin with a prayer and have a buzz lacking at other parties’ rallies. In a community hall in Hay Taddaamun, a working-class Tunis suburb, women outnumbered men in the audience. Party flags and bandanas with Nahda slogans were distributed to children, while party members performed comic sketches mocking the former regime.

The party, decimated in the 1990s by Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, the former president who posed as the defender of secularism, has regrouped since the regime was ousted in January.

Opinion polls suggest it could emerge as the biggest party in the elections, although it is still likely to be well short of a majority. Its rapid re-emergence has alarmed secular sections of society and sent liberal parties scrambling for ways to compete with the Islamist message in an effort to win over elusive younger voters. Its influence is also apparent in the pledge from many parties to “defend Tunisia’s Arab and Islamic identity”.

Nahda has been keen to show that it does not discriminate against women who choose not to wear the veil, in a country where women have historically enjoyed more rights than elsewhere in the Arab world. It has persuaded an unveiled trade unionist, Souad Abderrahim, to lead its candidates in one of the Tunis constituencies.

Its campaign leaflet also includes a pledge to defend women’s right to dress as they please, which works both ways. Many of its hijab-wearing supporters say they are enjoying a freedom denied under the former regime, when wearing a headscarf could mean exclusion from employment.

Nahda is not without critics. Since the fall of the regime, scores of political parties have sprung up, but only a handful — some of them old, such as Ettakatol or the centrist Democratic Progressive party, and some new, such as the middle-class technocrats of Afek Tounes — are being taken seriously. Controversially, several newly created parties are seeking to attract former ruling RCD party members, and these are emerging as the harshest critics of Nahda.

Tensions between Islamists and liberals took a violent turn over the weekend after clashes between police and protesters angry at the continued ban on the wearing of the niqab, the full face veil, at universities. Other protests broke out against a television channel’s airing of “Persepolis,” a film based on an Iranian novel about growing up under Muslim rule, which Islamists see as denigrating to Islam. Nahda condemned the protest.

Despite the apparent popularity of Nahda, however, polls suggest that up to 44 percent of the electorate remains undecided. This is a possible reflection of the frustrations of Tunisians, particularly the youth who led the revolution, at the lack of improvement in their daily lives. Many people say they are disenchanted with political parties. This could benefit the 587 independent candidates seeking election to the 217-seat assembly.

Still, when the centrist Progressive Democratic party and a smaller newcomer, the Free Democratic Union, bused in young men from the provinces for rallies at Tunis’s Qubba stadium, some members of the audience were happy to tell reporters outside the stadium that their loyalties in fact lay with Nahda.

“I want Nahda to do the impossible, to try the maximum, to provide jobs,” one young man from Kasserine said emphatically.

The Financial Times

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