Tunisians began voting Sunday in their first truly free elections, the culmination of a popular uprising that ended decades of authoritarian rule and set off similar rebellions across the Middle East.In May, The New York Times reported that a lot of Tunisians were frightened of this "moderate" Islamic party:
Voters — women with headscarves and without, former political prisoners, young people whose Facebook posts helped fuel the revolution — are electing members of an assembly that will appoint a new government and then write a new constitution. They're definitively turning the page on the 23-year presidency of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown by a monthlong uprising on Jan. 14 stirred by anger at unemployment, corruption and repression.
The party expected to come out on top, Ennahda, is a moderate Islamic party whose victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.
Mistrust of the party remains widespread. “They’re doing doublespeak, and everyone knows it,” said Ibrahim Letaief, a radio host at Mosaique FM, a popular station where he offers withering criticism of the Islamists. Ennahda, he said, has only tempered its rhetoric in a bid to win votes, but in power would impose strict Islamic law.Ennahda's leader acknowledged that the party may attempt to ban alcohol in the future.
It is a common refrain here, despite having first been popularized by the reviled Mr. Ben Ali. Opponents have made similar claims, anti-Ennahda Facebook groups have drawn tens of thousands of supporters, and protesters have denounced the party throughout Tunisia. Some of the fear seems to stem from uncertainty about who, exactly, will lead the party; the group’s longtime leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has said he will not seek office.
A democratic Tunisia depends on the banning of Ennahda, Mr. Letaief said, though he acknowledged, “I’m not going to seem democratic, here.” Still, he said, “Islam is very much anchored in society.”
The first article of the now-suspended Tunisian Constitution decreed Islam the national faith, and 98 percent of the country’s 10.6 million inhabitants are Muslim. Public schools dispense religious instruction. Yet religious leaders have never played a role in government.
Tunisia is in the vanguard of the Arab Spring and it is more unified and tolerant than most other Arab nations. If it falls to Islamism, it would be a very bad sign as to what may happen in other Arab states.
At this time, Ennahda is expected to win a plurality but not the majority of votes, forcing it to create a coalition.