Tunisian vote on Sunday set to give Islamists a share of power
Tunisians will hand a share of power to an Islamist party when they vote on Sunday in an historic first democratic election which could set the template for other Arab countries convulsed by the “Arab Spring” uprisings. The birthplace of the revolts which re-shaped the political landscape of the Middle East, Tunisia in January forced autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia and set in train a transition to democracy.
The new freedoms have allowed the moderate Islamist Ennahda party — banned by Ben Ali — to emerge as front-runner in the vote. That though is causing anxiety among the country’s secular elite, which believes its liberal values are under threat.
With so much at stake, there are concerns that even the smallest question mark over the legitimacy of the vote could bring supporters of rival parties out onto the streets. The government says 40,000 police and soldiers will be deployed to prevent any protests spilling over into violence. Shopkeepers say people have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts supplies.
“The elections are a big party which will be celebrated by everyone, whatever the results,” said Kamel Jendoubi, a human rights campaigner exiled by Ben Ali for 17 years who is now in charge of running Sunday’s vote. But a failure of the election process “would be catastrophic for North Africa and the Middle East region”, he said. “Tunisians must take this important responsibility to light the path of democracy for the peoples of the region.”
Ten months ago, Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi was in exile in London and hundreds of his followers were in jail. Since then, his party has tapped into a desire among many Tunisians for leaders who reflect their Islamic faith after years of Ben Ali’s aggressively enforced secularism. “I’ve chosen to vote for Ennahda because they are closest to Islam,” said 56-year-old Mokhtar Bahrini, a retired civil servant. “They’re very moderate and they’re not radical … We have to give them their chance.”