Courtesy Reuters

The Arab Spring's First Real Test of Democracy Arrives in Tunisia

How the Islamist Salafi Group is Playing Politics From the Sidelines

Ten months after an infuriated fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself aflame and provoked an uprising that tore President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the country’s citizens will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for a 217-seat Constituent Assembly. Tunisia’s election will be the first real electoral test of the Arab uprisings.
Several major forces are vying for power in the newly democratic country.

The largest party is the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Ennahda, which enjoys the greatest amount of support and whose poll numbers stand between 25 and 30 percent. Secularist and liberal parties, such as the Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP) and Ettakatol, have been recently polling between 10 and 15 percent. The PDP has rejected any possible coalition with Ennahda, but Ettakatol has expressed a willingness to work with it. There is also a small but vocal Salafi movement, which some Tunisians fear might act as a spoiler in the election alongside Ben Ali’s security apparatus. But until recently, all indications pointed to a successful election in which Ennahda would win a plurality of the votes and enter into a coalition to draft Tunisia’s new constitution.

In the past two weeks, however, unrest surrounding the role of religion in society has thrown these forecasts into question. On October 7, a private television station, Nessma, aired the movie Persepolis, sending shock waves through Tunisia’s burgeoning Salafi community. The film, about one young woman’s experience of the Islamic revolution in Iran, contains a scene in which God is depicted in human form -- an act of blasphemy for religious Muslims.

A backlash against Nessma TV quickly arose. Sheik Abu Ayyad, a leader of one of Tunisia’s most outspoken and radical Salafi groups, Ansar al-Sharia, accused the station of waging a “heretical” and “malicious” campaign against Islam. On October 9, Tunisian police entered several mosques and arrested some of the worshippers who were organizing anti-Nessma TV protests. In retaliation, Salafis called for “Day of Rage” demonstrations five days

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