Tunisia Elections…Islamists Vs Secularists

OnIslam & News Agencies

Tunisia elections Islamists
Tension is rising between Islamists and secularists is rising a week before Tunisia's first elections since Ben Ali's ouster
Tunisia, Islamists, secularists

TUNIS – As the clock ticks to Tunisia's first elections since the fall of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, tension is rising between Islamists and secularists in the post-revolution era.

"We paid a heavy price for the revolution," Walid, a Salafist, told Reuters.

"So we are not ready to let secularists and supporters of the Zionists control our destiny," added the young man, with a beard and a long white robe, after prayers in the Omrane district of the capital.

Like many of Islamists, who were oppressed under Ben Ali, Walid wants Islam to play a bigger role in the political life in post-revolution Tunisia.

"We want to respect our religion and to apply Islamic law in our country," he said.

"We want Islamic schools all over the country ... We do not want our women prevented from wearing the hijab and niqab (Islamic veils).

"We would like our country to be an Islamic country that does not allow taboo things, like wine."

Tunisia will vote on October 23, to elect a new parliament, the first polls since Ben Ali's overthrow earlier this year.

More than 100 parties will contest the polls, including Islamic-leaning Ennhda party, which is expected to emerge the biggest winner in the vote.

But tension has been growing ahead of the anticipated polls.

Last week, police used tear gas to break up a crowd of thousands of Islamists who were protesting a ban on face-veil on campus.

The protest escalated after Islamists stormed a television channel, Nessma, over the airing of an Iranian film, “Persepolis,” which included an animated depiction of God.


But secularists are worried that the rise of Islamists would turn Tunisia into a more conservative society.

"It will be a disaster if the Islamists win in the elections," Souad Layouni, a graduate in political science, told Reuters at a cafe in the Al Manar district near the centre of Tunis.

"They did not accept the broadcast of the film (Persepolis). We expect they will stop festivals and close the hotels."

Several thousand secularists made their views felt at a protest on Sunday in an upmarket area of Tunis.

The tension is growing more shrill, especially on Facebook, Tunisia's favorite forum since the social networking site was instrumental in bringing about the revolution.

One post predicts that if Islamists win the election, Tunisia will turn into another Afghanistan.

An Islamist posted that if the secularists win, "in the future we will see a man on television complaining about his 15-year-old daughter because she still keeps her virginity".

The danger is that, whether they want it or not, both sides will be pushed into more and more radical positions.

"There is a great fear that this dispute could turn to violence in the streets if tension is raised between the two camps," said political analyst Chadli Ben Rhouma.

But the mainstream of public opinion in Tunisia is not radical.

Salafists such as Walid are a vocal yet small minority. Most estimates put their numbers at a few tens of thousands and Salafist-aligned parties are small.

The gentler brand of political Islam promoted by Ennahda is much more popular and Ennahda officials underlined their moderate credentials last week when they condemned the violent protests.

Tunisia has another factor favoring peaceful accommodation, the example of Turkey, where moderate Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has overseen political stability and economic growth despite hostility from an entrenched secular elite.

Turkey is now sharing its experience.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Tunis in February and Erdogan followed in September. Both delivered the message that Islam and democracy can co-exist.

Ennahda leader Ghannouchi has also visited Turkey in the past few months.

The Turkish model appeals to the millions of Tunisians who, with Ben Ali's repressive rule, want to freely express their faith while enjoying the country's modern values.

Houda, a 25-year-old employee of a call center in Tunis, said she started wearing a hijab in February, the month after the revolution.

"Before, it wasn't possible to wear it with Ben Ali (in power)," she said.

"But now we can respect our religion without fear. This is already one of the big achievements of the revolution, to feel free to dress as you choose.

"The new Tunisia should be for everyone, without exception for whatever reason."
Related Links:
Islam Revival in Post-Ben Ali Tunisia
Pessimism Grows Over Tunisia Elections
Tunisia PM Allays Western Fears of Islamists
Don’t Fear Us, Tunisia Islamists Tell West
Tunisia Islamists Dispel Fears

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