Now that the votes have been tallied and the victors of Tunisia’s 23 October elections have been announced, the country’s Constituent Assembly is finally beginning to take shape. With the blue ink still fading from Tunisian voters’ index fingers, all eyes are fixed on the composition of Tunisia’s first independent governing body, and speculation is rife – especially since the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party has secured slightly more than forty percent of the Assembly’s seats. After decades of official secularism imposed by Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba, understandably, the election of a clearly Islamist party has raised the alarm of national and international audiences. But the party thus far has taken appropriate steps to assuage these anxieties, and it appears that if Ennahda puts its words into action, such fears are for the moment unfounded.
Tunisia’s religious minorities, mainly Christians and Jews, are perhaps the individuals with the most to lose from the election of a party with clear Islamic tendencies and programs. Christians, Jews, and atheists currently comprise approximately one percent of Tunisia’s population. With some isolated exceptions, they have enjoyed a relatively harmonious existence with the country’s ninety-nine percent Muslim population. Yet the treatment of these minorities under the new Constitution that the Assembly will write, as well as under the temporary government that it will appoint, still remains uncertain.
In response to allegations of Ennahda’s inability to fulfill the paradoxical task of protecting minority rights while maintaining a truly Islamic character, party leaders have denied neither the party’s Islamic leanings, nor Tunisia’s Islamic character. Instead, they have asserted Ennahda’s ability to respect all religions, backgrounds, and creeds while emphasizing the party’s compatibility with a democratic society. During a personal interview with Rached Ghannouchi on 19 October–before the elections were held—the Ennahda party leader stated, “Until now, Tunisian society has not been a society of minorities; it is a Muslim society whose religious minorities are respected.” He went on to add, “Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and the values of Arabic Islamic culture.”
Since the election, the party has continued to maintain this stance. On 2 November, for example, Ghannouchi met with the head of Tunisia’s Jewish community, Roger Bismuth, a meeting from which both individuals emerged “visibly satisfied.” Moreover, following the meeting, Hamadi Jebali, Secretary General of Ennahda and the party’s proposed candidate for Tunisia’s future prime minister, seized the opportunity to emphasize the party’s “brotherhood with Tunisia’s Jewish and Christian communities.”
Apart from Tunisia’s religious minorities, many Tunisian women are also visibly nervous about the eighty-nine seats secured by Ennahda in the Constituent Assembly. Anxious about potential amendments to Tunisia’s personal status code—a series of laws instituted by Bourguiba that guaranteed equality between women and men—as well as about the subsequent societal pressures that may emerge from the broad political power wielded by an Islamist party, many women are concerned that Ennahda’s gain is their loss. On 9 November, prominent Ennahda Constituent Assembly member Souad Abderrahim’s statements on Radio Monte Carlo that “single mothers are a disgrace to Tunisian society” and that “they do not have the right to exist” did not help to defuse this tension.
Still, Jebali was quick to reassure after his fellow party member’s rhetorical blunder: “Ennahda does not reject any part of Tunisian society, including single mothers. We believe that single mothers should be treated equally like all Tunisian citizens,” he stated. The party’s candidate for prime minister further emphasized that, “Improving the status of women in Tunisia is a central part of Ennahda’s plans.”
In this vein, despite the fact that the party can be labeled as “moderate Islamist,” Ennahda has pegged itself as a protector of personal freedoms and has promised to uphold women’s rights as guaranteed by Tunisia’s personal status code for women. Throughout the campaign period, Ghannouchi firmly asserted, “We will not introduce polygamy,” and “Ennahda will not ban alcohol or bikinis.”
Only several days after ISIE (Tunisia’s electoral committee) revealed the complete and final results, it is still too early in the game to determine whether or not these statements are mere political rhetoric or serious plans to be implemented. At the same time, Ennahda’s attempts to uphold minority rights thus far—at the very least symbolically—is a positive sign. What is more, the party does not currently comprise a majority of Constituent Assembly seats on its own; with 89 seats, it encompasses approximately forty-one percent of the body. A combination of almost entirely secular parties constitute the remaining fifty-nine percent, meaning that any plans proposed by Ennahda will not necessarily pass through unopposed.
Moreover, as the country’s first democratically elected body, all members of the Constituent Assembly have high expectations to meet, and judging from the recent media hype and international speculation, it seems that no party will receive closer scrutiny than Ennahda. As the wave of protests that erupted after the revelation of election results prove, Tunisians are not willing to lose their newfound freedom of speech, and will be quick to take to the streets if any of the party’s activities displease them. Tunisians did not overthrow one dictator to vote for another, and Ennahda is no exception.
Tunisia’s current political landscape is by no means final or non-negotiable. New elections will be held in a year, in which all parties will be held accountable for their performance, and Tunisians will have the opportunity to reevaluate the path that the country will follow. If recent history has proven anything, it is that the country’s leaders are not as decisive or influential as its inhabitants, and a substantial power shift is certainly foreseeable if the country’s citizens remain unsatisfied with their leaders’ performance.