TUNIS - Islamists are expected to do well in Tunisia's first democratic
election on Sunday, 10 months after the ouster of autocratic leader Zine
al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising that set off protest movements
around the Arab world.
The Ennahda party will almost certainly
win a share of power after the vote, which will set a democratic
standard for other Arab countries where uprisings have triggered
political change or governments have tried to rush reforms to stave off
Cost of 'Arab Spring' more than $55 billion
Anxious campaign season opens in Tunisia
vote is for an assembly which will draft a new constitution to replace
the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It will also appoint
an interim government and set elections for a new president and
Polls open at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 7 p.m.
Members of the country’s small Jewish community also are participating in the vote.
“We’re very, very happy,” said Roger Bismuth, the community’s president. “I was almost crying with emotion because I never expected people to behave so well. They were queuing up around the block. It’s unbelievable.”
Asked if he was concerned over the expected success of the Islamic party, Bismuth said it was too early to comment on the vote’s outcome.
“Right now I’m not worried,” he said.” I’m hoping that things will go well. It’s a big question, and that is our problem. There have been speeches that some people have made and people have not liked but I think it’s too early to give any impression.”
There are some 1,500 Jews living in Tunisia.
mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last
December set off the Tunisian revolt, said the elections were a victory
for dignity and freedom.
"Now I am happy that my son's death has
given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice," Manoubia Bouazizi
told Reuters. "I'm an optimist, I wish success for my country."
banned under Ben Ali who is now in exile in Saudi Arabia, is expected
to gain the biggest share of votes. But the Islamist party will probably
not win enough to give it a majority in the assembly and will seek to
lead a coalition.
The North African country's elite fear the rise of Ennahda puts their
secular values under threat. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) has
centered its campaign on stopping the Islamists, vowing to seek
alliances to keep it out of power.
Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of secularists and
Western powers, fielding several women candidates including one who does
not wear the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, and promising not to
undermine women's freedoms.
Tunisia was a pioneer of secular modernization among Arab and Muslim
countries in the post-colonial period, banning polygamy, equalizing
inheritance rights, giving women the right to vote and discouraging the
Fundamentalist Islamists known as Salafists have attacked a cinema and a
TV station in recent months over artistic material deemed blasphemous.
Ennahda says they have nothing to do with them, but liberals do not
Observers says Ennahda's intentions are not clear. Its election campaign
has scrupulously avoided offering policy details that mark it out as
much different from its rivals.
At a final election rally on Friday, Suad Abdel-Rahim, the female
candidate who does not wear a veil, said Ennahda would protect women's
But illustrating the party's contradictions, many of the books on sale
on the fringes of the rally were by Salafist writers who believe women
should be segregated from men in public and that elections are
"In the country's interior, where it's more conservative, they use
different rhetoric," said commentator Rachid Khechana. "It's about
stopping culture from outside, moral corruption of youth, defending
Islam, which they say has Shura (consultation), not democracy."
An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the Arab world
since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 Algerian
election the army annulled, provoking years of bloody conflict.
Ennahda's fortunes could bear on Egyptian elections set for next month
in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally, also hopes to
Libya hopes to hold elections next year after a protest movement that
transformed into an armed rebellion with NATO backing managed to oust
Muammar Gaddafi. Unresolved violent conflict continues in Syria and
Yemen, and many other governments have begun reforms to avoid civil
With so much at stake, there are concerns that even the smallest doubt
over the legitimacy of the Tunisian vote could bring supporters of rival
parties onto the streets.
Ennahda's leader, Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi, riled opponents this
week when he described the party as Tunisia's biggest and warned that
the Tunisian people would start a new uprising if they suspected any
Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi said in a televised address on Thursday
that Tunisians should vote without fear of violence or cheating, a
feature of Ben Ali's police state.
"No one can doubt the elections, they will be transparent and clean.
Rigging will not be possible. The ballot boxes will be open to
everyone," Sebsi said.
The government says 40,000 police and soldiers are being deployed to
prevent any protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers say people
have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts