Excerpt from The New York Times
Moderate Islamist Party Heads Toward Victory in Tunisia
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: October 24, 2011
TUNIS — Tunisia’s moderate Islamist political party emerged Monday as the acknowledged leader in elections for a constitutional assembly and began talks to form a unity government with a coalition of liberals in a rare alliance that party leaders hailed as an inclusive model for countries emerging from the tumult of the Arab Spring.
By Monday afternoon, Tunisian liberal parties said they were entering discussions to form a government led by their Islamist rival, Ennahda, after it swept to a plurality of about 40 percent in preliminary vote tallies. The acceptance of the results by rivals signaled the beginning of a partnership seldom seen in the Arab world, where Islamists’ few opportunities for victories at the voting booth have sometimes led to harsh crackdown or civil war.
In neighboring Algeria, an electoral victory by Islamists 20 years ago set off a military coup and a decade of bloodshed, and in the Palestinian territories, the sweep to victory of Hamas in 2006 elections led to a showdown with the West, a split in the government and armed conflict in Gaza.
Tunisia’s was the first election of the Arab Spring, held to form an assembly that will govern while it writes a constitution, 10 months after the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Islamists cheered the results as a harbinger of their ascent after revolts across the region. Islamists in Egypt are poised for big victories in parliamentary elections next month and their counterparts in Libya are playing dominant roles in its post-Qaddafi transition.
“This proves that there is no Islamist exception, no Arab exception about democracy,” said Essam el-Erian, a leader of the new political party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “We are as democratic as any country.”
In Tunisia and elsewhere some are wary of the Islamists’ surge, arguing that party leaders sound moderate now but harbor a conservative religious agenda. Tunisia, arguably closer to Europe than the other states swept up in the political upheaval of the past year, is widely viewed as having the best chance of establishing a genuinely pluralistic model of government.
Leaders of Ennahda noted that their party championed a greater commitment to the principles of Western-style liberal democracy than any other Islamist party in the region, and they said they hoped their example would help lead other Islamists in a similar liberal direction.
“We are the most progressive Islamic party in the region,” said Soumaya Ghannoushi, a British newspaper columnist and a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is the daughter of Ennahda’s founder and acts as a party spokeswoman.
“Accepting each other, accepting pluralism, accepting diversity and trying to work together — this is the lesson Ennahda can give to other Islamic political movements,” she said.
In countries like Egypt, where Islamists are more ideologically divided, Ennahda’s victory was sure to embolden those who favor a more liberal approach, including some within Egypt’s mainstream Muslim Brotherhood as well as breakaway groups like the New Center Party or a new party founded by former leaders of the Brotherhood Youth — groups already drawn toward the thought of Ennahda’s founder. But in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood also faces competition from new parties formed by ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, who seek an explicitly Islamic state.
Those already inclined to follow the Ennahda example “are not the most important players right now in the Islamist movement in Egypt,” argued Prof. Samer Shehata, a scholar of the region at Georgetown University. As a result, he said, Egypt’s secular liberals are likely to view the strong showing of Tunisia’s Islamists with “great concern.”
The final margin of victory for Ennahda remained to be seen Monday as Tunisian authorities continued to tabulate results. In the interest of transparency, officials counted the votes in the presence of observers in each polling place after closing Sunday night and posted the tally on the door, enabling political parties to compile their own rough estimates by Monday afternoon. Though reliable statistics were unavailable, observers said turnout had exceeded expectations. Some voters waited in line for as many as six hours.
In a news conference to announce its success, an Ennahda spokesman said the party had confirmed winning a plurality of more than 30 percent of the vote and the largest share in every district. A top party official, Ali Larayedh, said in an interview that Ennahda expected that the final result would be closer to 50 percent.
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