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Victory of Islamists in Tunisia sets ton...

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Victory of Islamists in Tunisia sets tone of “Arab Spring” elections

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Victory of Islamists in Tunisia sets tone of “Arab Spring” elections

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia, Libya, Africa

The success of a formerly banned Islamist party in the Tunisian election is expected to define the post Arab Spring political landscape, as their Egyptian counterparts also anticipate victory and Libya sets up a new regime based on sharia law.

Tunisia_Elections_4X3.jpg
A voter casts his ballot
in the Tunisian election
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Freedom House

The country where the Arab Spring began staged the first elections to emerge from that movement on 23 October. The Islamist Ennahda party emerged with the largest share of the vote, gaining over 40 per cent of the seats in the national constituent assembly.

Commentators expect that the outcome of the Tunisian poll will be repeated in the Egyptian elections this month, and also next year when Libyans go to the polls. Tunisia has long been recognised as one of the most Westernised, secular and liberal Arab nations, so if Islamists have emerged victorious there, it is even more than likely that they will do so in Egypt and especially Libya, where their values are more entrenched.

The ousted leaders of all three countries had kept a lid on Islamists, who have been unleashed in the wake of the respective downfalls of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Outlawed to law-makers

Ennahda was outlawed in Tunisia under President Ben Ali on the grounds that it was planning an Islamist takeover of the country. Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, was granted political asylum in Britain, where he lived for 22 years. He will now play a formative role in the new Tunisia, even though the party did not win an outright majority and its leaders say they intend to seek a coalition or “national unity government”.

Ennahda insists that its approach to sharia is consistent with Tunisia’s progressive traditions, especially regarding women’s rights, and has been making reassuring noises about forming a secular, democratic, Western-style government. But their opponents are not convinced.

Speaking before the election, Issam Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party said:

We are very afraid for democracy in this country if Ennahda win. They are lying all the time. They say they are pacifist and want democracy. But they use religion in politics, which is not fair. They are trying to trap people with religion.

The first parliamentary elections since the revolution in Egypt are set to take place this month, and the Islamist parties are expected to emerge with the largest share of the vote. The leading party, the Muslim Brotherhood, like Ennahda, were formerly banned, but they were legalised following the ousting of President Mubarak. Leading Muslim Brotherhood figures have made statements revealing their intention to implement sharia law, while polls have indicated significant support for both the Brotherhood and the role of sharia in the new Egypt.   

Libya’s Islamic order

Meanwhile in Libya, the leader of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalili, has emphasised the central role Islam will play as the country establishes a new order following the death of Colonel Gaddafi. He said on 22 October:

We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.

Jalili’s statement was greeted with cries of “Allahu Akbar” (“god is great”). He also said that laws contradicting sharia would be nullified, specifying that polygamy would be legalised, and called for an Islamic banking system. After making the statements, he tried to reassure Western powers who helped to topple Gaddafi that Libya’s new leaders are moderate Muslims.

While the Arab Spring has been hailed in the West as a new era of democracy and secularism for lands once in the grip of brutal dictators, it seems that those regimes will instead be replaced by strongly Islamic systems. And though the emerging leaders of these new orders claim to value Western-style democracy and secularism, there is no place for these concepts in Islam, which does not separate religion from the state, as evidenced in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This bodes ill for the Christian minorities in the region, particularly Egypt where there is a significant Christian community. Anti-Christian hostility has increased markedly there since the revolution and it is feared that this could become institutionalised across North Africa with Islamist parties in power.

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