Pluralism, Under the Crescent

By Afef Abrougui31.10.2011Global Policy

Is the success of Tunisia’s Islamist party signaling the end of liberal enthusiasm? Far from it: The first free and fair elections of the Arab Spring have cemented the ideals of a pluralistic democracy. This is a time for celebration, not a time for despair.

Tunisians headed to polls on October 23 to elect a national constituent assembly. According to the final results, the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha (“The Renaissance”) won more votes that any party or independent list. Once the provisional results were announced, secularists in Tunisia started to express their worries and fears that the success of Islamist parties would jeopardize Tunisia’s secular values. Although the elections “met international standards” – according to EU observers – demonstrations erupted against the results of this historic election. The secularization movement in Tunisia dates back to the post-independence era under the presidency of Habib Bourguiba, who is mostly known for the major role he played to issue the Personal Status Law, a set of laws that mainly protected women and guaranteed their rights. Yet as a young Tunisian who voted for a secular centrist party, I think that the fears of some of my compatriots are baseless and exaggerated. Thanks to the proportional representation, the Islamist party did not get an overall majority of the votes and obtained only 41 percent of seats. Secular politicians continue to outnumber Islamists in the constituent assembly. Concerns of Islamist influence should not overshadow the great progress that Tunisia has been making: After more than fifty years of authoritarian one-party rule, we finally have a truly diverse and pluralistic constituent assembly. Islamists, communists, secularists, liberals, and independents are all represented. Currently, the Islamic party is engaged in negotiations with two liberal parties about a possible coalition government. Leaders of Ennahdha claim that their party is “moderate”, and they often liken it to Turkey’s AKP. So why not give them a chance, and judge them later? Current fears are less a result of Ennahdha’s policy proposals but have been fanned by unfair media coverage of Tunisian politics. Western and local media seized on the rising influence of the Islamists and largely neglected the majority of the population that did not vote for Ennahdha! A few weeks before the election, a private TV station aired the award-winning film “Persepolis”. The film is based on the true story of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian girl who lived through the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that turned her country into an absolute tyranny. The clear message: If Ennahdha wins, Tunisia will turn into another Iran. On October, 20 Erik Churchill, an American based in Tunis, published an interesting post under the title “What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha”. He wrote: “There are lots of candidates, and lots of opinions in Tunisia. I salute any mainstream journalist who can show this side of Tunisia to the world”. For those who have been following the political scene before the election, the results are not surprising. But instead of looking at the election from the angle of winners and losers, we should be proud of the things that have been achieved in a mere nine months. Islamists and secularists alike have constructed a pluralistic society and organized the first fair and free elections of the Arab Spring!

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