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Renaissance, Islam, and Tunisian Elections

by on October 21, 2011

Self-immolation is a powerful thing.  On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia.  Less than a month later the president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia, and an after-current of revolution and change swept the Middle East.

The United States government, and the West in general, has long expressed a desire that countries practice democracy. Naturally, that doesn’t apply if the democratically elected government differs with the US in policy; the election of Hamas in 2006, in Palestine, is not a democratic election to be recognized. There was also significant fear of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak there, weeks after Tunisia deposed Ben Ali. Whether the American fear of the Muslim Brotherhood returns in force when Egypt has a democratic election remains to be seen. Now,

this Sunday, Tunisians will hold the first competitive elections since the current Arab uprisings began. Voters will select 199 (of 217) delegates of a National Constituent Assembly, which will in turn compose a new constitution and establish the framework through which Tunisians will form a permanent government (parliamentary or presidential). Another eighteen delegates are already being chosen, by expatriate Tunisians who started casting ballots in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East on Thursday.

Ennahda (“Renaissance”), is Tunisia’s leading Islamic party. It reemerged in January after decades of being banned and repressed by Ben Ali, while its leadership worked from exile. Multiple polls show Ennahda enjoying a substantial plurality of popular support. But Ennahda, Islamic or not, is not the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever the Brotherhood has been.

In their campaign members of Ennahda have gone to great lengths to convey their commitment to democracy. (Alternatively, one could say the party’s campaign reflects the group’s preexisting commitment to democracy). Official statements and campaign flyers in Tunis suggest Ennahda is the only party to place a woman (Dr. Souad Abderrahim, who does not wear the head scarf) at the top of one of its district level lists. Abdel Rahim’s spot could be interpreted as a token gesture, except that it meshes with a broader program based on transparency, non-violence, and rotation of power over the long term. As Said Ferjani, a member of the party’s political bureau explained to me at Ennahda headquarters, the group realizes it enjoys widespread popularity now , but this will not always be the case. Hence Ennahda’s stated goal is to help build a system that will be equitable and competitive over successive rounds, institutionalizing both uncertainty and fairness for the long haul. Ennahda’s interest in establishing a stable playing field for future elections may help explain why the group embraces international observers from the Carter Center and the EU, and why it rejected claims from some Tunisian politicians that election monitoring infringes on national sovereignty.

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