- 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.

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.

“Islamist groups are learning to play politics in the sense of moderating their message and moving to the center,” said Philip N. Howard, a professor at the University of Washington and director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam.

“They start out fundamentalist but then become content to participate in party politics and move to the center, giving up some of their radical politics.”

Ricky Goldstein, who observed the elections for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, was also suspicious of Ennahda.

“During the campaign, the Islamist party was quite disciplined in saying they will protect human rights, they will protect the rights of women and maintain equality, but in fact this is an open question,” he said.

“Their discourse in some areas was vague and ambiguous.”

Still, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, currently vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Washington Times over the phone from Tunisia that Ennahda was “saying the right things.”

“They are the most moderate Islamic party I’ve seen in the Arab world,” he said, noting that one of Ennahda’s candidates was an unveiled woman.

“They’ve told us directly that they have every intention to preserve Tunisians’ personal rights. I think they mean what they say.”

Mr. Muasher contrasted the group favorably with the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said had been “not as clear as Ennahda is on pluralism.”

Observers said Monday that any fears that Tunisia was unprepared for its democratic debut proved unfounded.

“For this being a first election and organized nine months after a revolution, I think it was orderly, conducted in a serious and professional manner,” said Scott Mastic, Middle East and North Africa director for the International Republican Institute, which sent an election-monitoring team co-chaired by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Egypt is scheduled to follow Tunisia’s lead next month, with a three-stage parliamentary election process beginning Nov. 28. Presidential elections are slated to follow in March.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.