News | World

Islamists’ success in Tunisian elections fuels mix of optimism, anxiety

Secular protesters march against Islamism in Tunis ahead of the Oct. 24 elections in Tunisia, Oct. 14, 2011. The placard reads "Free to speak to say nothing." (Houda Trablesi for Maghrebia, via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It was an orderly, peaceful election — a rarity in the Arab world. And it was won by Islamists.

How observers view the Tunisian elections and what they mean for the West, Israel and the North African country’s tiny Jewish community depends in part on which of the two facts they see as more significant.

In the Oct. 24 elections, the Ennahda Party won 90 seats, making it the largest bloc in the 217-member assembly. The Islamist party is now negotiating with other parties to form a government.

Many see the Tunisian election results as a harbinger of Islamist electoral success in a post-Mubarak Egypt and a post-Gadhafi Libya.

Those who have welcomed the Arab Spring see Tunisia’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy and Ennahda’s professed commitments to tolerance and pluralism as positive omens.

But other observers of the Arab Spring detect in the Tunisian elections the seeds of an Islamist winter. They question the sincerity of Ennahda’s professions of moderation, and see the Tunisian election results as heralding a much more dangerous Middle East. Many supporters of Israel particularly fear the likelihood of a politically empowered Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where a peace treaty for decades has protected Israel’s southern flank, though the threat is tempered somewhat by the continued hand of the Egyptian military on the levers of power.

Jason Isaacson, the director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, which maintains close ties to Tunisia’s Jewish community, says there is much to praise in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy within such a short period of time.

But, he warned, “It could go south. There’s no question that promises and commitments made in an election campaign may be forgotten. It’s too early to celebrate.”

Skeptics of Arab Spring doubt that there will be cause to celebrate anytime soon.

“Anyone claiming that this is a moderate group is either lying or has been deceived,” wrote Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research and International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, in an analysis of Ennahda’s electoral success.

In his analysis, Rubin cited a 1994 article by Middle East scholar Martin Kramer on the rhetoric and writings of Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s founder and current leader, who at the time was seeking a visa to tour the United States. Kramer, then affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, cited Ghannouchi’s support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had been defeated recently by a U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War.

“We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world,” Ghannouchi said at the time.

Ghannouchi hewed to the typical Muslim Brotherhood stance on Israel: He backed Hamas and fervently wished for Israel’s disappearance.

“I think that the approach of Palestinian Islamists must be the liberation of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” Ghannouchi said. “Any part that is liberated is a gain, provided the price is not the sale of the rest of Palestine. Palestine belongs to the Muslims and must be liberated in its entirety.”

Kramer also cited a statement by Ghannouchi that the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were part of “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish economic and cultural activity, culminating in complete Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.”

In his article, Rubin expressed doubt that Ghannouchi had changed. He also predicted that Ennahda’s success, together with reports of Islamist gains in Egypt and Libya — two other nations that shucked off secular dictators — portends decades of unrest.

“We’ve been handed 30-50 years (that’s the optimistic assessment) of bloodshed, oppression, social stagnation, war, terrorism, and anti-Western hatred,” Rubin wrote. “We must now devise a strategy to deal with this situation and survive it.”

That sort of outlook is a surrender to despair, according to Joel Rubin, director of government affairs for the Ploughshares Fund, which funds projects aimed at advancing peace and ending conflicts.

“Tunisia is a society that is going to trend to moderation,” he said, noting pledges by Ennahda to protect minorities and the status of Tunisian women — among the most advanced in the Arab world. “One can’t wish Islamism away, so one should see what it’s going to look like.”

Joel Rubin, who has visited Tunisia multiple times, was cautious about extrapolating a larger message for the region from a relatively small country that has maintained close ties with the West, and where the leadership has inculcated a secular outlook in its elites.

“We have to view it as an independent variable and assess it and see if it creates lessons,” he said.

Tunisia was unique, Isaacson acknowledged, but should it succeed in incorporating Islamism into a democratic polity, its example could prove transformative.

“If people are true to their words and Tunisia is true to its condition, it will be a testament to an Arab democracy where secular and religious forces coexist,” he said.

One positive sign was the care the major Tunisian political parties — including Ennahda — took to reassure the 1,500-member Jewish community that its protected status would not be affected.

Tunisia’s Jews were wary of Ghannouchi’s Islamism, said Rachel Shabi, a London-based journalist who interviewed community members ahead of the election. But they also were willing to give him a chance.

“There is this awareness, let’s trust in this system of democracy, that we have had these historic elections, there is a government that will try to represent all people in Tunisia,” she said of the Tunisian Jews.

Neither Isaacson nor Shabi foresaw any opposition by the new government to the deep ties between the local Jewish community and the tens of thousands of dispersed Jews of Tunisian origin abroad, including in Israel. Thousands of Jews visit the Jewish community of the Tunisian island of Djerba and its ancient synagogue each year for Lag b’Omer, and a number of important sages are buried in Tunisia, attracting pilgrims.

A 2002 bombing on Djerba’s synagogue that killed 21 people, the majority of them German tourists, was the work of al-Qaeda and is not seen as representing indigenous hostility to Jews. In February of this year, shortly after the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a group of Islamic extremists demonstrated outside the main Tunis synagogue shouting anti-Semitic slogans. But since then, things have been mostly quiet for Tunisia’s Jewish community.

“Nothing has occurred in recent months that has been threatening to the community,” Isaacson said.

Coupled with efforts by monarchs in Jordan and Morocco to accommodate their own nascent democracy movements, a democratic Tunisia could trigger change throughout the region, Isaacson said.

“The United States has to remain involved,” he said. “We can’t walk away from this one.”