Leaders of Ennahda, the long-oppressed Islamist party that won more seats than any other in Tunisia’s vote, say they hope to demonstrate that Islam can be an effective organizing principle for their nation, and one that poses no threat to the West.
The party succeeded by appealing to a constituency far beyond the pious, encompassing the poor and others who had been marginalized during nearly a quarter-century of despotic rule by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. During the campaign, Ennahda emphasized a return to traditional Islamic values, as well as economic and social justice. The group promised to protect women’s rights in this relatively liberal Arab nation.
Now Ennahda’s rhetoric will be tested by its role as the leading member of a governing coalition very likely to include secular groups. Tunisia’s assembly — which was elected Sunday in the country’s first free and fair vote — has the power to appoint an interim government and a year to draft a constitution.
“People were presented with a choice: either Islam without modernity or modernity without Islam,” said Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda and its spiritual guide.
But that, he said, was a false choice: “We want Ennahda as an open space: open to religious people, non-religious, male, female, open to all Tunisians.”
Ghannouchi said he hopes Tunisia’s example of democracy will dispel stereotypes of Islamists as being violent, intransigent and enemies of the West.
Across the region, Islamists have for years lived in the shadows. They were marginalized, stigmatized and imprisoned in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia — the three nations in which popular revolts this year have succeeded in ousting longtime autocrats.
Ghannouchi said the Islamist leaders who are likely to emerge from the Arab Spring would probably be similar to those in Turkey but definitely not in the vein of militant groups such as the Palestinian organization Hamas or Afghanistan’s Taliban.
As Tunisian election results were announced in recent days, there has been no serious outcry from secularists. Liberal parties are in discussions with Ennahda about a pluralistic interim government.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been watching the events in Tunisia with great interest. The party — which was used for decades by President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February, to justify iron-fisted tactics in suppressing dissent — is expected to make a strong showing in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month.