Tunisians headed to the polls on Sunday in what was the first free election in the Muslim world since their country ignited the Arab Spring last January.
Although many voters told foreign reporters that their priorities were boosting employment and cleaning up the corruption that they associate with the old regime, there is concern in Europe and the United States about the mounting popularity of political Islam.
Ennahda, the Renaissance Party, is expected to win a plurality of the votes if not a majority. The secular front, by contrast, is splintered with more than a hundred liberal and socialist parties contesting the election.
Ennahda‘s rise hasn’t just fueled anxiety in the West but in Tunisia as well where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali imposed a secular regime for almost 25 years before he was ousted in a popular uprising this year.
Especially among the urban youth who played a key role in the revolt, the Islamist political presence is regarded warily, notwithstanding assurances from Ennahda‘s leaders that they do not seek to impose religious values on the entire nation. They say they draw inspiration from Turkey where a conservative Muslim government is less aggressively secular than were its predecessors although there, too, the opposition worries that an overtly religious sentiment among the political class could permeate Turkish society and make it less tolerant.
There is division within Ennahda about the party’s Muslim identity. Whereas the leadership claims to seek a pluralistic democracy and has promised to work with liberal parties before a proper government is formed, there are supporters who favor more space for traditional Islamic values, ranging from the freedom for woman to wear the veil to a ban on alcohol.
Secularists pushed back vehemently during election day when Ennahda representatives were called “terrorists” by some. The first free vote was universally heralded as a victory by Tunisians but their politics are almost certainly to become more polarized than they were during Ben Ali’s days when Muslims weren’t allowed to express their faith in public.
Tunisians elected an assembly on Sunday that will draft a new constitution to replace the one that allowed Ben Ali to cling to power for decades. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new parliament and president.
If Ennahda fails to secure an outright majority, its influence will be diluted in a coalition with secular members of the assembly who champion modernization.