- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2011

A moderate Islamist party that had been banned for decades in Tunisia appeared headed for victory Monday in the region’s first elections of the Arab Spring.

A win by the Ennahda, or Renaissance, Party in the relatively secular North African country could portend Islamist gains in elections scheduled to take place in Egypt and Libya over the coming year.

Results trickled in Monday, a day after Tunisians voted to elect members of a 217-member constituent assembly charged with drafting a constitution, appointing an interim president and government and setting a date for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Tunisia’s electoral commission said that 90 percent of the country’s 4.1 million registered voters had cast ballots.

Preliminary numbers showed Ennahda holding a commanding lead, with party leaders predicting that they would win up to 30 percent of the seats and 40 percent of the total vote.

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrate after early signs showed that the party was ahead in national voting. (Associated Press)
Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrate after early signs showed that ... more >

The centrist Congress for the Republic Party (CRP) and the center-left Ettakatol were battling for second place. The secular-liberal Progressive Democratic Party, once seen as Ennahda’s most serious rival, was projected to finish a disappointing fourth.

The only official results released Monday by the election commission were for overseas voters. Those results showed Ennahda winning nine of 18 seats. The commission said that full election tallies would not be available until Tuesday afternoon.

Ennahda representatives indicated Monday that they likely would govern in coalition with the CPR and Ettakatol. PDP leader Maya Jribi, meanwhile, told reporters that her party would “clearly be in opposition” to “defend a modern, prosperous and moderate Tunisia.”

The results capped the triumphant comeback of Ennahda. Like its electoral competitors, Ennahda was suppressed during Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, which ended in his ouster in January. Party founder and leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who had been in exile in Britain for 22 years, returned after Mr. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed the vote as “a historic milestone on Tunisia’s path from autocratic dictatorship to a government that respects the will of the people.”

“We encourage the constituent assembly to operate in a transparent and inclusive manner, as they undertake this new democratic responsibility and fulfill the Tunisian people’s aspirations for accountability, wider economic opportunity and respect for universal human rights,” Mrs. Clinton said, promising U.S. cooperation.

Tunisia, a country of 10 million sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, ignited the Arab Spring after 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the provincial town of Sidibouzid after a police officer confiscated his cart.

The Tunisian protests that followed are widely credited with inspiring similar uprisings across the Arab world that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and threatened the regimes of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The expected victory of an Islamist party — combined with the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing strength in Egypt and the Libyan transitional leader’s speech Sunday that promised Shariah would be the “basic source” of Libyan law — raised concerns in some quarters that the Arab Spring was taking a decidedly fundamentalist turn.

Ennahda says it wants Islamic law to be the source of the country’s legislation, but also insists that the country’s progressive personal status code is compatible with its ideals and that it respects all religions and creeds. The party’s ability to gain votes by moderating its message in a country with a progressive social history could be a model for Islamist parties elsewhere.

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