TUNIS — The strong showing by a moderate Islamist party in Tunisia’s elections this week has made this tiny coastal nation a test case for whether Islamist ideology and democracy can coexist in a region long dominated by Western-backed autocrats who have used religion as a foil, not a governing philosophy.
Tunisia’s election — the first since uprisings in the Arab world began to dislodge an entire generation of North African rulers this year — was watched closely in Egypt and Libya, which expect to go to the polls in the coming months.
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.
But the Brotherhood is considerably more conservative than Ennahda, and it operates in a more traditionally minded country that is grappling with a deep divide between Muslims and Christians. Salafist groups, which are more reactionary and were more severely oppressed under Mubarak, also are running and may take a sizable minority in Egypt’s parliament.
Still, the Brotherhood is drawing inspiration from Ennahda’s victory.
“This is a new phase, a birth of a new era for all the nations of the Arab world,” said Essam el-Erian, a leader in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “The Tunisian people are showing the world that there is no conflict between the Islamic ideology and democracy.”
Ben Ali, Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who was killed last week, ruled through cronyism and cult followings. They also derived support from the United States and Europe by presenting themselves as bulwarks against militant Islam.
But secular Arab nationalism of the sort embodied by those three men made a “shambles of the society,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the Century Foundation. Now Islamists are reaping the gains as the people of the region rise up against repression, he said.
“The Islamists have weathered that repression better than any other group and remained coherent,” he said. “The proof will be in how Ennahda chooses to govern in this short period.”
Tunisia enjoys substantial advantages that its neighbors lack, including a relatively peaceful transition to democracy.
After eight months of conflict, interim Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil declared the nation’s liberation this week with a promise of instituting Islamic law. But Libya is probably headed for a major debate over the proper role of religion in public affairs.
In June, Libyans are expected to elect an assembly that will be responsible for writing a new constitution. Some secularists in Libya fear that the ascendancy of Islamists could strip away some of the freedoms for which the country’s revolutionary fighters battled and died.
The fears are prominent in Egypt, as well.
“The events in Tunisia were a catalyst for the revolution here, but it doesn’t mean that we will continue walking in their footsteps,” said Dina Abdel Ghany, 19, a college student. “I don’t want fundamentalist Islamist parties to come to power in Egypt because they would limit a lot of people’s freedom.”
As Tunisian election results were announced this week, hundreds of Ennahda supporters — male and female, veiled and unveiled — gathered outside party headquarters as music blasted and people celebrated.
“They will do something for the poor and middle-class people. We’re 80 percent of the country. We’re tired of the bourgeoisie, we’re tired of them,” said Fathi Gabsi, 51, a taxi driver.
“The generation of Ennahda has arrived,” the crowd sang, and then it burst into the national anthem.
Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was in some ways rigorously secular. Women’s head scarves were snatched off in the 1980s and 1990s, and women were forced to sign letters asserting that they would not wear “sectarian dress.”
Ghannouchi said he hopes that the West will understand that Islamist philosophy reflects a wide range of views — from the intolerance of Osama bin Laden to the openness of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“It doesn’t have to be a clash of civilizations,” Ghannouchi said. The West and the East can coexist for the “sake of humanity.”
Correspondent Mary Beth Sheridan in Tripoli and special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.