Arab Spring, Islamic Harvest: Tunisia Goes to the Polls

Tunisia is a small Arab country (pop. 10 million) that has never really counted much in the Arab picture. Under the guidance of its charismatic founding father, Habib Bourguiba, whose physiognomy resembled more that of the ancient Carthaginians than the later Arabs, Tunisia became the most liberal of Arab states, even banning polygamy back in 1956. Women had a better status than anywhere else in the Arab world. Now suddenly Tunisia's formerly outlawed Islamic Party Ennahda (it has dropped the designation "Islamist"), has won a plurality in the elections to the Constituent Assembly on October 23. It obtained 41.7 percent of the votes and 90 seats in the 217-seat Assembly. Two secular parties followed, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) of Moncef Marzouki, with 13.82 percent and 30 seats, and a left party, Ettakatof, with 9.68 percent and 21 seats. These two lesser parties are now in talks with Ennahda over the formation of a coalition government. However, Ennahda has declined to include in the coalition the fourth-place party led by businessman Hashmi Haamdi, on the grounds that it is supported by former followers of the defunct Ben Ali regime.

Longevity, Repression Corruption How did this stunning victory of Ennahda happen? As elsewhere in the countries of the Arab Spring, the Islamist parties had no connection with the former authoritarian military regimes: with the extreme longevity of the dictators in power, producing a feeling of lassitude among the people; with the repression of the people by the police and security services of these regimes; and with the rampant corruption among the ruling families. The feeling toward Ennahda among many Tunisians, as is the case elsewhere with Islamist parties in the Arab world is, in a nutshell, "They're clean. Let's give them a try." The head of Ennahda, Rashid Gannouchi. who spent 22 years in exile before returning to Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring, has been making all the right noises, as have members of his party, in particular the secretary-general Hamadi Jbeli, the presumptive Prime Minister in a new coalition government. On October 26, Jbeli sought to reassure foreign tourists and investors:

The tourism sector is among the achievements which we cannot touch. Is it logical to handicap a strategic sector like tourism by forbidding wine or wearing bathing costumes? These are personal liberties for Tunisians and foreigners as well.

In addition, Jbeli stated that,

We will not make Islamic banks universal. We are not going to abolish the banking system that exists.

Finally, stated Jbeli,

It is not a question of imposing a Constitution... that abrogates certain liberties such as freedom of worship and individual freedoms, [and] the juridical status of women and their place in society.

What will be most critical for the new Assembly, which is charged with naming an interim Prime Minister and writing a new constitution before going out of existence in a year's time, will be to revive the ailing Tunisian economy. The tourism industry has taken a severe hit. Before the Arab Spring, it represented 6.5 percent of GDP and employed 11.5 percent of the working population, or a total of 340,000 men and women. In general, what we are seeing in this dénouement of the Arab Spring is the rise of constitutionally-based Islamist parties à la Ennahda, and we may as well get used to it, up to and including maintaining diplomatic relations with these parties. Besides the just-concluded elections in Tunisia, there will be the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt starting in November, and then the projected elections in Libya, where the Islamist component in the new Libyan regime is significant. There will of course be clashes of culture between secularists and Islamists, and we are already seeing some of this in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Welcome to the new Arab world where democracy and Islam meet.