Tunisia: between hope and cynicism

Hemadi Jebali, secretary-general of Ennadha (al-Nahda) party. (Trudy Rubin / Staff)

Writing about Tunisia’s spectacular elections involves a tussle between hope and the cynicism that comes from having long covered the Middle East.

The elections themselves were more impressive than I could have imagined, with enormous queues waiting for hours.  I had seen similar lines and inked thumbs in Iraq in 2005. But there many Shiites joined the line because they were instructed to do so by Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and came after much terrible violence and a top down imposition of democracy. 

In Tunisia, from what I could see, the urge to vote was an expression of joy at the peaceful, bottom-up revolt that toppled a dictator. But here’s where the hope vs. cynicism factor kicks in.

 The party with the most votes – a hefty plurality at this point – is an Islamist group called Ennadha, which as I wrote today in my column, is far more moderate than any other Islamist group in the region.  In my interviews with Ennadha’s two top leaders, Rashid Ghannouchi and Hemadi Jebali, it was hard not to be impressed by their claim that Islamic values and democratic politics could mesh, and their insistence that they respected a pluralist political system and women’s rights.

However, there is plenty of evidence that sections of Ennahda’s rank and file are more hardline that these two leaders, and conflicting evidence as to whether they’re ready to reject hardline salafi Islamists who use violence. (Both men told me they reject the use of violence by anyone, salafi or not, but they haven’t really made a strong public stand against recent salafi attacks on a TV station and its owner).

Moreover, it’s hard to check the claims by many secular Tunisians that Ghannouchi uses a double standard, saying one thing to a Western audience and another to Arab audiences.  I queried him on one such claim, that he had called for the restoration of the Arab caliphate in a speech in Cairo, even though he told me that he believes religious and political institutions must be separate in a modern state.  

He denied making any such statement, and told me he had spoke of modern forms of Muslim unity such as the Arab Mahgreb Union of North African countries.  And I’ve yet to pin down any verifiable report of this claim.  Yet the claims of doublespeak were repeatedly raised by worried secular Tunisians.

I have seen too many Islamist parties in the Mideast, not to worry that even good intentions can be waylaid by the primal urge by such parties to instill “Islamic values.”

Ghannuchi and Jebali are impressive, and if they mean what they say, they deserve strong support from the West.   But their spoken intentions have yet to be tested. And many of their youthful followers may have a far less sophisticated understanding of moderate Islam, believing that a resounding  victory means the winner can impose his views.