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Elections in Tunisia Pose the Revolution’s First Challenge

by Martine Gozlan 

TUNIS— It is the first challenge of the first Arab Revolution. On Sunday, October 23, Tunisians will elect their representatives for the Constituent Assembly, whose first task will be to draw up a future Constitution for the new Tunisia.

What a challenge. What an atmosphere in the streets of Tunis. Such fever, such hope, but also so much anguish. For these free elections, the first since the fall of Ben Ali’s dictatorship last January 14, will highlight the confrontation—only in the polls, hopefully—between Islamists, the first organized political force in the country, and the democrats, pressing for a secular society.

The latest polls show the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda Party indeed in the lead, with 25 percent. Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who returned from exile about ten days after the Revolution, styles himself as a believer in “a modern Islam, on the Turkish model” The reality is more complex, and Ghannouchi’s media statements are not exactly the same as his comments in political meetings. In his impressive assemblies, where men and women are strictly separated, the Ennahda leader does not hesitate to chant: “Islam is our Constitution!”

The party has money (directly transferred from Qatar’s banks) and an organization similar to the former RCD, Ben Ali’s now-defunct party. Ennahda backers are bused into the meetings, while other party supporters must pay their seats to come support their candidates.

Arrayed in opposition are some 104 political parties—10,000 candidates and 1,711 slates for 217 parliamentary seats. This goes to show the incredible splintering of this ballot. The progressive, center-right Democratic Party remains far behind Ennahda with 11 percent in the polls, while on the left, Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom) boasts just 10 percent of the electorate.

Those three political forces clearly stand out on the multitude of independent lists, making it all but impossible to know who is who, and who supports what. Moreover, those voters still nostalgic for the Ben Ali era threaton confuse the issue even more. Islamists are said to present their own lists as well, aiming at reinforcing the chances for a religious society.

If this all appears hopelessly complicated, everything, in reality, is quite simple for the revolutionaries of January, 2011. Those who overthrew the tyrant were secular. Those who jumped on the bandwagon, once the despot had fled, were religious. They didn’t take even the smallest risk during the insurrection. But today, they try to kidnap the revolution.

Indeed, having covered the tumultuous weeks that saw the triumph of the first Arab Revolution, I was able to witness these actors, these young boys and girls armed only with bravery, seeking not Allah but human freedom. Girls were unveiled, boys had no beards. The first universal militants of the Arab world, they were neither against the West nor against Israel, which for me was a major surprise. Now, their enemies, the Islamists of Ennahda, the enemies of these first brave revolutionaries, are counting on the poverty and fatigue of the lower classes, to become the leading political force.

Two societies, then, are in the process of confronting each other. A secular, modern Tunisia ranged against a religious, obscurantist Tunisia. This has become increasingly clear over the last few days, when Islamists attacked the studios of TV channel Nessma, which had the temerity to broadcast Persepolis, a movie adapted from the renowned graphic novel devoted to the Islamic Revolution in Iran,  written by Marjane Satrapi, a brilliant artist born in Ispahan, now living in Paris.

Rioters screamed that it was blasphemy, since the novel included a drawing depicting God as an old man. They then sacked the house of Nabil Karoui, head of the TV channel. His wife and children were forced to flee through a concealed door, At the same moment, other Islamists were taking to the streets in every city of Tunisia, demanding sanctions against Nessma-TV.

Fanaticism had already hit this summer. A theatre, where a documentary was showed on relations between Tunisians and religion, was attacked, with several movie-goers injured. The director of this deeply moving and courageous filnm entitled “Laïcité, Inch Allah!” is Nadia El Fani. She became the target of hundreds of death threats from fanatics on the Internet.

I know Nadia El Fani well. She has beautiful, vivid eyes with the color of black cherries, and an ironclad dynamism. She is one of these Tunisians who placed their hopes on the revolution. Indeed, she still believes in it. Like her father Béchir, 80, in the theatre last June when the Islamist commando attacked, he was physically threatened by the group’s chief.

From one generation to the next, neither Béchir nor Nadia want to submit to these threats. This is their Tunisia, a Tunisia of hope and freedom of thought that they will defend next Sunday. Meanwhile, thousands of youths marched in Tunis on October 16 and in other provincial cities across the nation. Against fanaticism and violence, they were shouting “Leave us!” 


Martine Gozlan is editor-in-chief of the French weekly Marianne and the author of seven books, including Tunisie, Algérie, Maroc: La Colère des Peuples (l’Archipel, 2011). Her latest, L’Imposture Turque (Grasset) will appear in October. 

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gwenael Piaser]

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