By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — An apparent election victory for Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, has sent a message across the region that long-sidelined Islamists are challenging for power after the Arab Spring.
Tunisia’s election officials say results from the October 23 vote will be published piecemeal because the counting of votes takes time.
But official results show Ennahda winning 37 of the 73 seats accounted for so far in the 217-seat constituent assembly that will write Tunisia’s new constitution and appoint an interim government.
Ennahda supporters have been celebrating on the streets of the capital, Tunis, by singing the country’s national anthem.
But amid expectations that the Islamists will not win a majority in the assembly, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been reassuring secular potential coalition partners that the Islamists will not try to impose Shari’a law.
He says his party will also not enforce any code of morality on the millions of Western tourists who holiday on Tunisia’s beaches.
His daughter, Intissar Ghannouchi, said the party wanted to cooperate with secular parties.
”Of course we are very pleased with the results, not just of our party but also across the political spectrum. Many political parties who have done well have expressed an interest in cooperating with others, who have expressed an openness to working together,” Ghannouchi said.
“That’s a key part of our plans, we plan to work closely with the other parties, and we are already in negotiations to do that.”
Rachid Ghannouchi said on October 26 that Ennahda’s commanding lead made it the “natural” choice to head the interim government that guides Tunisia’s transition after the ouster of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali by a popular uprising in January.
Asked who should be interim president, Ghannouchi said that nothing had been decided yet. But he said it should be a person who worked against the dictatorship of Ben Ali.
That would rule out any coalition deal with the Petition for Justice and Development group, which is in a close race for second place and is backed by Hachmi Haamdi, a London-based business tycoon with close ties to Ben Ali.
But it leaves open the possibility of a deal between Ennahda and the leftist Congress for the Republic. Also battling for second place, the Congress for the Republic is led by Moncef Marzouki, a doctor and human rights activist who spent years in exile in France during Ben Ali’s rule.
Marzouki predicted that in the end, power in the assembly would be shared by three or four parties, making it easier to create a unity government.
“We are going to fight for civil liberties and we are going to do everything to protect women’s rights, but we are not going to fight against Islamists,” Marzouki said.
No ‘Demonizing’ Islamists
“We don’t want an ideological war between secularists and Islamists. We can work with moderate Islamists and convince them that it is better for the country to stay within the framework.”
Ali Larayd, a member of Ennahda’s executive committee, said the Islamists were ready to form an alliance with the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, both secularist groups that are respected by Tunisia’s intelligentsia.
Early official election results placed Ettakatol in fourth place. Ettakatol is a socialist party led by Mustafa Ben Jaafar, a doctor and a veteran opponent of the former regime.
The highest-profile secularist challenger to Ennahda, the Progressive Democratic Party, had campaigned by warning voters that modern, liberal values would be threatened if the Islamists won.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington would wait and see whether Shari’a law would be a factor in Tunisia’s new constitution.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that Paris was optimistic about the fledgling democracy in Tunisia. Juppe added that Islamic parties should not be demonized out of hand.