Islamist Party Wins in Tunisia

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Last week, Tunisia, the forerunner of the Arab Spring, held its first free elections since the toppling of the Ben Ali regime in January of 2011. By most accounts, the elections were held in a generally peaceful and lawful manner. Albeit not altogether surprising, the success of the Islamist party Ennahda has many wondering about its causes, as well as its implications for the fate of other like-minded movements across the region, such as those in Egypt and Libya.

On the causes of the party’s electoral success, Egyptian daily Al Ahram’s Karem Yehia reports: “Why did the Islamist Ennahda Party win the first democratic elections in the ‘Arab Spring’? When I put the question to ordinary Tunisians, I almost invariably encountered the response that they cast their vote for the Islamist Ennahda Party without the slightest hesitation....Outsiders or observers recently arrived in Tunisia may have had the impression that the poor and working classes were for Ennahda while the more well-to-do and the intelligentsia were against it. Al-Hadi Bulleid, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Tunisia…categorically refutes this....In Bulleid's opinion, one of the chief reasons why Ennahda received such a large vote was because the Ben Ali regime had cast it as the primary target for repression in his police state. At the same time, the movement recast itself and presented itself to Tunisians as consistent with the Bourguiba legacy and the modernist reform movement.”

The Saudi Arab News editorial also believes that “Ennahda was successful because it was perceived to be working for the popular classes. At the same time, it acted as a national and Arab nationalist movement and not just an Islamist one. Another major reason why Ennahda received such a large vote was because the Ben Ali regime had cast it as the primary target for repression in his police state. At the same time, the movement recast itself and presented itself to Tunisians as consistent with a modernist reform movement....No matter the results, Tunisia's landmark election was a monumental achievement in democracy and a success story hard to replicate but which elections next month in Egypt and Morocco and later in Libya should try to emulate.”

An article by Mustafa Akyol in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News sees a parallel between the Turkish model and the Tunisian one: “Just like in Turkey, democracy in Tunisia brought an end to secular dictatorship…. Similarly, it is not only significant but also telling that Ennahda spokesmen have repeatedly said that they take Turkey’s incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) as their ‘example.’... [I]t is time now for Ennahda to work toward forming a stable government and disproving the fears that secularists plump and some secular people probably genuinely have. If they can be successful in both and form a government that will bring more freedom and prosperity to Tunisia, they will have replicated the ‘AKP model’ in the Arab world. As the initiators of the Arab Spring, and as the heir of a liberal Islamic tradition that dates back to the 19th century, they are simply the perfect people to do that.”

Despite the uncertainty associated with the election of the openly Islamist party, the Peninsula editorial makes it clear that, given the ongoing social transformations, “The new Islamist mainstream, which includes Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, has evolved over the years, and now realizes that the dominant new generation of young Arabs using Facebook and YouTube will keep them in check….Ennahda said it respects democracy and human rights and wants to work with secularist parties to draft a new constitution.... The Islamists must be given a chance to take up the reins of power, if that is what people say they want at the ballot box. The Islamists have an unprecedented window of opportunity that, if taken properly, would allow them not only to revive the religion of Islam in a constructive and beneficial way, but also to present the world with an example to be emulated.”

Concerns about the road ahead are at the heart of the Khaleej Times editorial: “How the new government led by Ennahda now rewrites the country’s constitution and runs the administration is likely to be the litmus test since apprehensions concerning its ideological inclinations remain....The fact that Ennhada even after winning the majority of electoral seats in parliament will have to enter a coalition with other political parties may bring in a balanced government.... Even so, the new leadership in Tunisia, tasked with the responsibility to steer the nation towards political and economic stability, must work day and night to ensure that promises  made are fulfilled.”

The message from the Lebanese Daily Star is more direct: “Ennahda has said it will insist on a strong female presence in government — which is more than, say, that supposed bastion of Arab progressiveness, Lebanon. All the noises it is making in terms of consensus building sound like the right ones....No one would deny an organization ruling in a predominantly Islamic country observing its religion. However, there are degrees of religious adherence, and basing rule of law on faith in the 21st century ought to be anachronistic. Ennahda should be praised for fostering openness and moderation, and it is to be hoped that the new Tunisian government realizes it is possible to separate faith from civic administration without ignoring the importance of religion in daily life.”

Drawing on Turkey’s own ongoing political metamorphosis, Dogu Ergil asserts on Today’s Zaman, what many have already mentioned: “The Islamists of Tunisia and Egypt promise to pursue democracy. But their deeds and rhetoric will not escape close scrutiny as long as they remain in power. They will also be watched very closely by their own people, who expect them to deliver real results such as better administration, a working economy, justice, security, employment and functioning public services, ranging from improved education to health care. The fervor of ideology does not last too long when services are sacrificed to rhetoric. The case of Turkey is a good example. An ideological secular government backed up by the military proved to be inefficient in providing liberty and progress. It was replaced by an Islamic-leaning government who soon proved to be more practical than ideological.”

Attempting to draw lessons from the Tunisian experiment, Al Masry Al Youm’s Issandr El Amrani is convinced that “there remains much work ahead for the constituent assembly that has just been elected, including building a more solid transition process, holding members of the former regime accountable and, of course, writing a constitution that reflects Tunisians' desire for democracy and the rule of law. But others — and most notably Egyptians — can learn from the Tunisian process thus far....It may be impossible to start over, with a national unity government composed of independent politicians rather than malleable technocrats, and the postponement of elections to allow time for the electoral process itself to be more credible. But political forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, could learn at least a couple of things from Tunisia.”

Finally, Tony Karon, chief editor of UAE’s The National, reflects on the political transformation that has occurred in Washington and how such transformations indicate it has begun “to learn to live with Islamist parties…. Voters in countries newly liberated by the Arab rebellion should be relieved that Washington has lost its appetite for toppling elected governments....The Islamists are new to electoral politics, of course, and in Tunisia — as well as Egypt and Libya — they have professed a desire to share power and forge a governing consensus with other social forces rather than strive for a monopoly of power....So there's plenty of room for building pragmatic relationships with the emerging Islamists in the new Arab democracies, and the Kissinger idea of ‘protecting’ an electorate from its own inclinations is a non-starter in this day and age. Engaging with the Islamists, for better or worse, is now the only game in town.”

Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at