Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party was seeking to form a unity government Tuesday amid indications that it would win more than 40% of the seats in an assembly that will write a new constitution and test the cooperation between Islamists and secularists in building a democracy.
Tunisia, which inspired the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, is moving beyond decades of autocracy in an effort to put together a government based on the revolution that overthrew President Zine el Abidine ben Ali in January. But secularists and liberals fear that the apparent widespread victory by the Islamist party Nahda may jeopardize civil liberties and edge the country toward sharia, or Islamic law.
Nahda officials have said they want to forge alliances with all parties to draft a constitution that will set an example in a region gripped by upheaval and uncertainty.
The negotiations probably will prove delicate as Nahda leaders, including Rachid Ghannouchi, who spent years in exile, have the moment and possibly the mandate to establish their own style of political Islam.
“We will not shut anyone out of our consultations,” Nahda campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said at the party’s headquarters. He said Nahda would reach out to “political parties in the assembly and outside it, and civil society groups and unions.”
“There will be continuity because we came to power via democracy, not with tanks.”
Partial election results released Tuesday give Nahda 43% of the vote in Sunday’s election for a constituent assembly. That puts it far ahead of 87 other parties, including the main secularist party, the Progressive Democratic Party, which fared poorly. Despite its sizable lead, Nahda, much better financed and organized than other parties, is likely to be forced into a coalition under rules that prevent one party from dominating the assembly.
Worries about Nahda echoed Tuesday in the chants of about 400 protesters outside the election commission building in Tunis, the capital. Demonstrators surrounded by squads of police officers yelled, “Where is the transparency?” while others carried signs denouncing Ghannouchi, who was twice imprisoned and tortured under Ben Ali and returned from London months ago.
“It was expected throughout Tunisia that Nahda would win the elections,” said Atef Dhibi, one of the protesters. “I do think it will work. In the end, there will be another election in a year so we will see then. This will be a test.”
Aymen Brayek, a university student in Tunis and a student organizer for Nahda, hailed the results but said the Islamist party now had the responsibility to form a unity government.
“I am very happy, very pleased,” he said. “We need to help each other out, put our hands together against exclusion and marginalization.”
Sandels is a special correspondent.