CAIRO – After decades under a secular dictatorship that was intent on erasing Tunisia’s religious fabric, religion is now playing a leading role in the country’s first elections since the downfall of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
"They bring us back to religion,” Sonya, a 22-year-old student at Kasserine University, told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the Islamic-leaning Ennahda party.
“We are Muslims, after all."
The young Tunisian is planning to cast her ballot for Ennahda in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
"I want an Islamic and civil state at the same time."
Tunisians went to polling stations on Sunday, October 23, to elect a new assembly in the first polls since Ben Ali’s ouster earlier this year.
More than 100 political parties are contesting the polls, including Ennahda, which is expected to emerge the biggest winner.
The new assembly will draft a new constitution and pave the way for presidential elections.
"We of course are convinced that Ennahda has a majority," said Mohsen Bouthouri, the secretary-general of Ennahda in Kasserine, a rural town in central Tunisia.
"We have a very strong election campaign — it goes from door to door, to big meetings, or being in touch with people in the souks, everywhere in the country."
Ennahda’s approach appeals to many Tunisians, who lived under a secular dictatorship that for years seemed intent on erasing the country’s religious fabric to transform Tunisia, one of the Arab world's best educated and most cosmopolitan societies, into the France of North Africa.
But the problem for Ennahda is to find a strategy that satisfies Islamists, secularists and a younger generation, driven by technology and progressive ideas.
"The Islamists talk out of both sides of their mouth," said Aida Khemiri, another university student, 22.
"It makes me scared. ... Under Ennahda, everything would become taboo in the end."
The Islamic-leaning party dismisses the secularist concerns, reiterating commitment to pluralism and human rights.
Tension between Islamists and secularists has sharply grown in the run-up for Sunday’s elections.
Earlier this month, 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.
In response, several thousand secularists made their views felt at a protest in an upmarket area of Tunis.
Some Tunisians complain that the growing debate between Islamists and secularists overshadows the deep-rooted problems in the country.
"We would like to put the economy, social problems and unemployment at the head of the list," said Khemiri."But then we were obligated to take on this religious debate because we started to feel threats."
Related Links:Tunisians Vote in Historic Elections
Tunisia Elections…Islamists Vs Secularists
Don't Fear Us, Tunisia Islamists Tell West
Tunisia PM Allays Western Fears of Islamists
Islam Revival in Post-Ben Ali Tunisia