Almost a year since one of its citizens, in a desperate gesture, ignited the Arab Spring, Tunisia once again is setting an example to the rest of the Middle East.
The small North African country is heading into a historic free election on Sunday, and on the streets of Tunis the atmosphere is both anxious and ebullient. After decades of rigged elections and single-party rule, Tunisians suddenly can choose among 60 parties, most of them brand new.
The most dramatic change of all is the emergence of an Islamist party long persecuted by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime.
On Friday, in the lower-middle-class Tunis suburb of Ben Arous, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the founder of the Nahda movement, addressed a festive crowd of thousands of men, women, and children gathered in a soccer field.
“For years we knocked on the door,” said Ghannouchi, “but the Ben Ali regime wouldn’t let us in.”
After Nahda, or “Renaissance,” made significant gains in elections held here in 1989, Ben Ali cracked down mercilessly on Islamists. “There isn’t a family in Tunisia that doesn’t have a Nahda member who was jailed, fired, tortured, or killed,” said Ghannouchi. He fled into exile in the United Kingdom and was tried and sentenced to life in prison in absentia.
Now, said the Islamist leader, “We are the most organized and popular party in Tunisia.”
“The people want Nahda once again!” the crowd yelled.
Ghannouchi returned after Ben Ali’s ouster. According to polls, his party is expected to win the largest percentage of seats in the assembly that Tunisians will elect this weekend to write the country’s new constitution and appoint a new government.
The predicted gains have some here deeply worried. The Progressive Democratic Party, one of the country’s largest secular parties, has built its electoral campaign around stemming the perceived Islamist threat.
“These elections are of capital importance,” says senior PDP member Mohamed Abid. “They are the first free elections in 50 years. The question is: What society will the Tunisian people choose? One that is modern and open to the West, or one that is retrograde, heading back to the Middle Ages?”
Back in the 1980s, Tunisia witnessed some Islamist terrorism. But Nahda’s leaders condemn violence and say that they respect freedom of religion and women’s rights.
At the rally in Ben Arous, Nahda candidate Soad Abderrahman, an unveiled doctor, told the crowd that Nahda would never tell women what to wear or discourage them from working. “Why not put a woman in an important ministry?” she asked. “We who were oppressed for so long will never oppress anyone.”
Abid and some of his colleagues dismiss the Islamists’ moderate stances as “double talk.” Nahda members reply that secularists are “fear-mongering.”
Under Ben Ali, says Yusra al-Ghannouchi, one of the Islamist leader’s daughters and a party spokeswoman, “people were only able to hear one voice, repeating all these lies: Nahda is against freedom, Nahda is against women’s rights, Nahda is violent, Nahda will do away with all our modernity. As if Nahda is coming from some alien planet. Nahda is part of this society, it’s been saying the same things: That it wants a democratic system, a society where citizens are equal, where individual and public freedoms are guaranteed.”
The Islamist group is constantly asked, says Ghannouchi: “Can you give me any guarantees that you won’t break your promises? This is difficult to respond to. You can judge me on the basis of my statements and actions,” which, she says, prove the party’s commitment to democracy. “But if you want me to convince you that my intentions are pure, I can’t.”
Nahda isn’t the only party taking advantage of the new, unimaginable political freedoms available since Ben Ali’s fall. In a country where any political involvement used to warrant a visit from the secret police, parties now canvass door-to-door and hold constant public rallies.
“We are hearing from men and women we never could have heard before,” says Labidi. “There are religious movements, but we shouldn’t demonize them or get hysterical.”
The other day, the historic leftist Ettakatol, or Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, called on supporters to meet in cities’ main squares all across the country. In Tunis’ Place de la Republique, near a busy tram station, party leaders and supporters handed out fliers to curious bystanders. Dozens of conversations—and a few arguments—broke out.
The main difference between his party and Nahda, says Ettakatol member Karim Koudi, is that “We defend the separation of state and religion, and individual freedoms, loud and clear.” Nahda’s leaders say freedom of expression should be tempered by a respect for people’s religious sentiments.
“Nahda includes a large spectrum, from extremists to moderates,” says Koudi. “The danger is that we don’t know in which direction they will go.” Still, secularists and Islamists can and should work together during the transitional period, Koudi says, to address the unemployment and rural poverty that fueled the uprising.
Nearby, one of Ettakatol’s female candidates, an IT engineer and businesswoman wearing a white baseball cap bearing the party’s logo, was talking to a small crowd with extraordinary passion. “Freedom is responsibility!” she said. “You must be aware, be responsible, and go vote! That’s how we will make our country a democracy.”
The Ettakatol candidate is just one of many women running in the election. Following a new law, all parties’ electoral lists are 50 percent female.
But most parties have put male candidates at the head of their lists, meaning many more men than women will be in the assembly. “The parties haven’t played along,” says Lilia Labidi, the interim Minister for Women, a professor, writer, and artist who under Ben Ali put on a controversial art installation featuring 15 women wrapped in government newspapers.
Still, Labidi is optimistic about the democratic process and women’s participation in the new Tunisia.
Tunisia has one of the Arab world’s most progressive family codes, but women’s rights were used as “scenery” by Ben Ali, says Labidi: “He used feminism to burnish his image with the West. He used feminist discourse but rejected feminists themselves. We could only speak to say we were with him.”
Now women can speak for themselves. And for them, as for all Tunisians, the experience is exhilarating.
“We are hearing from men and women we never could have heard before,” says Labidi. “There are religious movements, but we shouldn’t demonize them or get hysterical. Tunisian society is moderate, not extremist. It’s shown it wants democracy.”