Islam, democracy at heart of crucial Tunisian vote
Posters of candidates cover a wall in Tunis ahead of the October 23 election.
October 18th, 2011
07:48 AM ET

Islam, democracy at heart of crucial Tunisian vote

By Tim Lister, CNN

The people of Tunisia, who lit the fuse for protests that have ignited the Arab world, cast their votes for a constituent assembly this weekend. Ahead of this critical vote, one online video has come to represent a stark choice about the future of the country.

The video is part of a guerrilla war between secular and Islamist groups waged through social media. It says much about a climate of growing suspicion and mistrust in the first Arab country to expel the old order - a climate that has already led to bouts of violence.

Against a background of melancholic music, the 45-second video entitled "The Day After" shows a woman sitting on a sofa with her two daughters. She speaks as if Islamist groups have taken power and says her husband "told me they could be trusted. I believed and I followed."

Then she adds: "After a few months, they changed the law. He married two other women. ... I forfeited my family's happiness. ...I betrayed my daughters' futures."

Tunisian Islamists have responded by posting their own version of the video - with a very different twist to the woman's words.

"I was told, 'Be careful, pick any party except them. They're backward,'" says the dubbed version. The woman speaks of Tunisia as a police state. "They even came to my office to tell me, 'You either take off this rag off your head or quit your job'" - a reference to whether women would be allowed to wear the veil in public in a secular Tunisia. Under the old regime, women wearing headscarves often found it difficult to find employment.

The dubbed video ends: "Together against the anti-Islam campaign. Tunisians: your vote is your trust."

The two versions of this one video are the starkest illustration of what has become a dominant theme in the campaign for a constituent assembly that will devise a new constitution: the role of Islam. It is a debate that is being played out across the Arab world as it wrestles with alternatives to authoritarian rule. In Tunisia, the euphoria of driving President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power ten months ago has long since dissipated.

The original video was one of five created and posted on Facebook and YouTube by business supporters of a secular Tunisia.

None mentions a political party by name. One of the videos shows a young waiter in an empty restaurant. "My boss is ruined. The restaurant is failing," he says. The message: Islamists would introduce strict laws about drinking and socializing, scaring off Tunisia's all-important tourism trade.

In recent weeks, the debate in Tunisia has taken to the streets with violent consequences. Islamist groups protested in Tunis earlier this month after a local television network broadcast an animated film called "Persepolis," which at one point depicts God, an act of blasphemy to many Muslims. The protest turned violent as police intervened with tear gas.

A subsequent march by Islamist Salafist groups on the prime minister's office last week was also dispersed. In addition, there was also an attack on the home of the TV station's owner.

The most prominent Islamist party, Ennahada, condemned the violence but would not disown the protests, describing the film as provocative.

The stakes in this election are huge for Tunisia but will also resonate across the Muslim world. A first-place showing for Ennahada - even if an outright victory seems unlikely - would encourage other Islamist parties across the region.

But it would also pose questions about Islamist rule and democracy. Would Ennahada impose a conservative social code on what is one of the most secular and industrialized Arab countries? Or would it follow the model of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party showing that Islam and democracy are compatible?

Ennahada's leadership has insisted it offers the latter. Leader Rachid Gannouchi, who returned to Tunisia in January after two decades in exile, has said he is "no Ayatollah Khomenei" and has promised his party would protect women's rights and work with other political parties. The party's rallies have attracted many women.

Gannouchi has suggested that Tunisia needs a coalition government for the next several years to deal with the nation's chronic problems, especially unemployment, which is estimated to be running at some 15%.

One recent survey suggests that while a third of Tunisians are focused on Islamic values, nearly 60% say unemployment - the issue that kick-started the unrest at the end of 2010 - is their priority.

There are about 100 parties vying for votes, but it is difficult to assess their strength. Authorities have banned campaign advertising and polling - and even the size and placement of election posters has been tightly controlled.

Since the campaign officially began, the newly-liberated Tunisian press has been banned from interviewing politicians. Instead, candidates are allowed a three-minute television appearance.

The interim government says the measures are intended to ensure a level playing field where money can't buy media prominence. Secular parties have complained they make it difficult to reach citizens beyond their urban, middle-class constituency. Ennahada has an organizational advantage because even though it was driven underground by Ben Ali, it kept a grass-roots presence in much of the country, often working through mosques. More voters say they have been contacted by Ennahada than by any other party.

Private polling obtained by CNN suggests that Ennahada may win a quarter of the vote, and the Progressive Democrats about 10%. Another secular party, Ettakatol, may win about the same amount. But 50% of Tunisians say they are undecided and the rest of the vote could be split by dozens of groups. And there are nearly 600 independent candidates.

Writing a new constitution for the country that won international acclaim for its Jasmine Revolution will be more like wading through brambles.

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Filed under: Tunisia
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. RonMexico

    They will do what good unthinking sheep in that part of the world always do . . . exactly what the mullahs and clerics tell them to do. Been that way for loooong time and nothing is going to change it. It's like allowiing North Koreans to pick their leader.

    October 19, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • Tania

      Hi . This is a verry narrow minded way of thinking. Have you ever read anything about Tunisia or spoken to a Tunisian? Tunisia was the first Arab country to give the vote to Women. First Arab country to abolish poligamy. First Arab country to alow abortion. We have women Pilots, Judges, Doctors, Lawyers, Managers of large enterprises. so before you speack , read and inform yourself. I am a person who has lived in this part of the world as you say, but grew up on your side of the world. never generalize when you want to make comments and be constructive please.

      October 20, 2011 at 4:01 am | Reply
  2. hmmm

    they apparently have a choice between a group that is intent on imposing their religious beliefs upon the entire society and a group that is secular..... gee... how exactly is this different than the choices in the USA right now?

    October 19, 2011 at 11:20 am | Reply
    • Vesstair

      The difference is very clear- in the US, the religious people who want to impose their moral authority believe the last messenger from the all-powerful man in the sky came 2,000 years ago. In Tunisia they believe that guy was a messenger from the all-powerful man in the sky, but there was ANOTHER messenger about 450 years ago.

      October 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  3. ALL uh

    ALL religious people are mentally ill on some level. The more devout you are to your brand of crazy, the more dangerous you become to your fellow human beings.

    October 19, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
  4. Tania

    All I have to say is that on 14JAN we were united. There were no questions of islamist, feminists, democratic, young , old , rich or poor. We wanted freedom. Freedom englobes many things. On sunday 23OCT it will be freedom of choice. We all have to respect the choice of the Tunisian peoples in it's deversity. That is Democratie and it is a scarry thing. I think that religion is something personal. Across the ages politics and religion has never made a good cocktail. The most important now is respect and vigilence. NO VIOLENCE. Tunisians made the world change this year. So don't mess it up because our choice will most likly make new waves. Cool for a little country. I am so proud!

    October 19, 2011 at 5:49 am | Reply
  5. Slim

    There is no place for religion in state matters !! Tunisia is the most moderate arabic muslim country in the world, a success story.. Islamists and Ghannouchi are a threat for our country and our revolution. We'll not back up to midlle ages, to something we have never been: islamist !!

    October 19, 2011 at 12:33 am | Reply
  6. ABDULLAH

    Give ISLAM a chance. We can see in the west how their system failed. Time for Allah to be obeyed and be ruled by.

    October 19, 2011 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • alala

      well islam had a lot of chances since the 6th century, and has it now in the arab world. everything we can see now is hatred and war. faith is in the heart, but government should follow logic and defend human rights.

      October 19, 2011 at 12:35 am | Reply
    • Vesstair

      You are free to be ruled by Allah's law. Why do you feel it necessary to force others to as well?

      October 19, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  7. Nadia

    check out this You Tube video than from Engagement Citoyen that created a huge buzz today in Tunisia:

    it's part a a communication campaign to get Tunisian people to vote and the organization is entirely run by Tunisian women!

    October 18, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  8. Yakobi.

    There you have it. Islamists are against freedom and democracy.

    October 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
    • hasan

      just how did u come up with that conclusion

      October 18, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  9. Jim Soper

    Tunisians living overseas should vote *Oct 20-22*. They will need a passport or Carte d'Identite Nationale. More information is here: http://isie.tn/Fr/instances-régionales-à-létranger_7_65, and here: https://www.facebook.com/irie.amerqiues.europe . If you live in the Americas, good information is also here: http://irie-are.info . North American voting centers include New York, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Ottowa and Montreal.

    October 18, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  10. Truth is Undeniable

    uh

    October 18, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  11. Shifter

    In order for Tunisia to become a true democracy, there must be a clear separation of church and state. Matters of religion should remain a personal matter.

    October 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • Hypocrite

      Sounds like the American way. Oh wait, separation of church and state doesn't work out in our politics. If you separate yourself from "god," you will never hold a public office.

      October 18, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply
      • Janaisia Upchurch

        WELL I THINK THAT THIS SHOULD END BECUSE THIS IS INSANE AND PPL NEED TO REALIZE THAT THERE IS NO REASON TO FUSS AND HAVE FREAKEN WAR..........

        October 18, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
      • Juuka Morinaga

        1. No tu quoques, please
        2. He could be Canadian... or British

        October 19, 2011 at 8:14 am |

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