The surprise featured in the Constituent Assembly elections in Tunisia was not only at the level of the overwhelming victory for the Islamic Ennahda Party, but also included the crushing defeat of the Progressive Democratic Party, which was competing with the movement on the eve of the polls over the biggest number of seats.
If there is a lesson to be drawn by Ennahda from this electoral experience – after the end of the euphoria of victory and the negotiations to form the transitional government – it is the reason behind the resonating defeat of its main competitor in the first free and transparent elections in Tunisia in the post-Ben Ali era.
There is no doubt that the Democratic Party paid a hefty price for its opposition of Ben Ali’s regime, and that it relentlessly defended political and public freedoms, including the Islamists’ right to exercise political action.
It also repeatedly called for the issuance of a general pardon in favor of all the political prisoners, while its history throughout the days of Ben Ali was unblemished by any accusations of collaboration with the former tyrannical rule.
But despite all that and despite its electoral campaign which was open to all the sides, it was unable to draw the Tunisians’ votes and came in the last positions among the winning parties, although it was counting on occupying the first position, or the second at worst.
The party’s struggle against Ben Ali’s authority did not promote it in the ranks of the Tunisian people due to the fact that it operated under the former tyrannical regime, and maybe even its name’s connection to that regime.
Hence, the votes went to Ennahda, i.e. the most persecuted movement by the tyrannical rule, and to two other movements (the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) which were formed following Ben Ali’s toppling.
In other words, the Tunisians conveyed their high sensitivity toward tyranny from which they suffered throughout decades, and their yearning for all that is opposed to that tyranny. This is the most important lesson to be drawn by Ennahda from the Constituent Assembly elections.
True, in light of this Assembly, the government that will be formed by Ennahda will be a transitional one while awaiting the adoption of the new constitution, while so far the Islamic movement has not shown any signs pointing to its intention to monopolize power. However, the way it will manage the transitional phase and translate its political positions in the new constitution will convey the extent of its respect for the Tunisians’ aspirations to get rid of all forms of tyranny, regardless of its justification and whether it is imposed in the name of religion, secularism or the fight against terrorism.
The movement acquired its credit thanks to its moderation and centrism. Its roots go back to the Muslim Brotherhood group, which means it shares common origins with two other Islamic experiences in two Arab and African countries. The first experience was seen in the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in the municipal and legislative elections in Algeria, and its practices which introduced terror to the country and prompted the army’s interference to obstruct the results, thus triggering a decade of violence which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
As for the second experience, it was seen in Sudan where the Islamic Movement reached power through a military coup and set the foundation for a failed authority on all levels, until the country’s eventual division.
Now, the question facing the Tunisian Ennahda is the following: Will it repeat the catastrophic Algerian and Sudanese experiences or present a new archetype for a regime led by an Islamic movement?
Leader of Ennahda Rached Ghannouchi does not conceal his admiration for the experience of the Turkish Justice and Development Party, especially at the level of its attempts to achieve concord between the Islamic values and the values of civil authority, political plurality and power transition.
This admiration comes in favor of this man who confirmed - on the eve of the elections – his insistence on all the civil laws known in Tunisia, especially under its late President Habib Bourguiba and particularly the civil status law.
However, the challenge resides in Ennahda’s ability, after coming to power, to stand in the face of the extremist movements – whether those inside of it or those carrying outbidding on the Islamic level from outside of it – but also to found the civil and modern Tunisian state that would exclude all forms of tyranny, which the Tunisians hated and against which they rebelled.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the London-based al-Hayat on Oct. 26, 2011.