REPORTING FROM TUNIS, TUNISIA -- Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party appeared to win elections for an assembly to draft a constitution Monday, a sign of religion’s growing influence over politics in the country that inspired uprisings across the Arab world.
The apparent victory by Nahda is certain to resonate throughout the region, especially in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to post a strong showing in parliamentary elections next month. Nahda’s ascent from banned organization to popular force indicates that an emerging political Islam may replace decades of rule by secular autocrats.
That prospect indicates that much of the Middle East and North Africa regard Islam and politics as indivisible, a dynamic that has upset liberals in battles over civil rights and what styles of governments will rise from the so-called Arab Spring. Nahda has consistently promised that it is committed to pluralism and tolerance but its opponents claim it masks a more conservative agenda.
Preliminary results reported by a radio station suggest Nahda won at least 30% of the 217 seats in the constituent assembly in electionsSunday. Party officials claimed that Nahda was ahead in most regions and could win more than 40% of the seats in the body, which will frame the nation’s laws and prepare for presidential elections.
Workers at the state media center said ballots were still being counted and that official results were expected Tuesday.
“The first confirmed results show that Nahda has obtained first place,” said the party’s campaign manager, Abdelhamid Jlazzi. “We will spare no effort to create a stable political alliance in the constituent assembly. We reassure the investors and international economic partners.”
Nahda’s apparent victory comes after years of suppression and the exile of its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi. The party was revived when Tunisians toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and sparked revolutions across the region.
Tunisia has moved more quickly toward democracy than much of the Arab world, including Egypt, where the military is in control, and Syria, where security forces have killed thousands of anti-government protesters.
“A win by Nahda recognizes the Arab-Muslim identity of Tunisia,” said Souhaben Hamouda, a political science major at the University of Juridical and Social Sciences. “But the party is promoting a moderate Islam. I don’t think it will backtrack on women’s rights and other freedoms.
“This election shows that people were sympathetic to Nahda after years of attacks on it by Ben Ali and more recently secular parties,” Hamouda added.
There was worry among liberals, however, over how Nahda would blend Islam with Western-style democracy. The main secularist force in the elections, the Progressive Democratic Party, which was expected to be a counterbalance to Nahda in the constituent assembly, did poorly in the voting.
“The trend is clear. The PDP is badly placed. It is the decision of the Tunisian people. I bow before their choice,” PDP leader Maya Jribi told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “We will be there to defend a modern, prosperous and moderate Tunisia.”
Nahda’s Jlazzi told reporters: “The priorities for Tunisia are clear. They are stability, conditions for a dignified life and the building of democratic institutions in Tunisia. We are open to anyone who shares these objectives. We are open to all forces without exception.”
-- Jeffery Fleishman
Photo: Nahda supporters gather at the party headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, on Monday. Credit: EPA