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 later. Their Internet campaign for the event included images of the Nessma TV station logo superimposed over a Jewish Star of David. The station, which has no discernable ties to Israel, was nevertheless accused of taking part in a “Zionist conspiracy.” The protests themselves turned violent; Salafi activists looted the home of Nessma’s owner, and Tunisian police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Some, such as the French Arabist Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, have speculated that Nessma TV, which is known for its provocative programming, aired Persepolis expecting that it would elicit a strident reaction from the Salafis and hoping that this response would warn Tunisia’s secularists and liberals that radical elements could hijack the revolution. Whether or not this was Nessma’s intended effect, several thousand Tunisians poured into the streets for a peaceful counter-protest on October 16, demanding protections for freedom of speech and civil liberties.

The events surrounding the screening of Persepolis have altered the dynamics of Sunday’s election. The majority of Salafis in Tunisia oppose participating in elections, since they view them as contrary to sharia. But the Persepolis controversy gave Salafis the impetus to flex their muscle and protest what they saw as yet another attempt to marginalize Islam in their country, giving them a voice in a debate in which they had been sidelined. The show of force by the Salafis jolted apathetic elements of the Tunisian youth and liberals into action. Liberal groups mounted another round of rallies on Thursday and plan to demonstrate Saturday, in Tunisia and in France, to defend pluralism and to speak out against the possibility of religious dictatorship. The Salafi demonstrations may thus help bring more secular and liberal Tunisians out to the polls in fear that there will be an Islamist takeover.

The Salafi protests have also placed Ennahda in a bind. The party has condemned the demonstrations and denied any role in them, reiterating that it seeks change only through peaceful means. On the one hand, this sentiment may alienate some of Ennahda’s young supporters, who are believed to be more radical than its “moderate” leadership. On the other hand, it may buttress the party’s credentials among Tunisia’s liberals, who fear that it has been saying one thing in public and another to its supporters in private. If Ennahda continues its pragmatism once elected, it could dampen and discredit more extreme religious elements and allay the concerns of Tunisia’s secular elements.

Nevertheless, some Tunisians remain worried about Ennahda. Many reacted with concern when the party’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, recently said that Ennahda expects to receive a majority of the vote, fearing a potential Islamist backlash should the party fail to meet those expectations. Yet al-Ghannouchi claims that he remains dedicated to reconciliation, even if his party does not receive the highest percentage of votes.

As has been the case in other Arab countries in the midst of transition, debates over the role of religion in society have become focal points for religious and secular groups alike. How Tunisians grapple with this issue, along with the results from this coming weekend’s election, may offer insight into the trajectory of the rest of the Arab uprisings. As with the original protests in December 2010 and January 2011 that sparked the revolutions, a hopeful outcome in Tunisia may promote peaceful democratic transitions elsewhere.

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