Islamists remain the unknown quantity in Tunisian politics

Tunisia's postponed elections focus attention on religion and the state. But even if Islamist parties have an electoral advantage, postponements are no solution

Powered by automated translation

In a scene from the Tunisian filmmaker Nadia El Fani's Secularism, Inshallah, she is shown debating with a group of people on the streets of Tunis. "The people are opposed to an Islamic government but not to a Muslim country," says one man in French. "We are Muslims." Ms El Fani points out that the constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the republic. "What about those who are atheist, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist - and who are also Tunisian?" she asks.

Secularism, Inshallah is about the role of religion in public life. It is a film that reflects a debate that has been running in Tunisia since popular demonstrations brought an end to the 23-year reign of the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. The debate has occasionally turned violent. Last month, dozens of men entered a cinema screening El Fani's film in Tunis, disrupting the show and forcing viewers to leave.

The deterioration of that debate is partly the result of political uncertainty. Sunday should have been Tunisia's first free election for decades. Since Mr Ben Ali was forced out in January, an interim government has ruled the country, preparing for elections that will choose an assembly to write a new constitution. Those elections were scheduled for July 24 but have been postponed until October 23.

Ostensibly the elections were postponed to allow time for technical processes such as registration to be completed. But some Tunisians fear the vote will be postponed indefinitely, either keeping Tunisia in post-revolution limbo or allowing elements of the previous regime to regroup.

In particular, the party widely expected to win the lion's share of the vote is concerned that postponement benefits its rivals. Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, the main Islamist party, said after the postponement that the former political elite "are trying to escape the ballot box. Those whose weight is low do not want to stand on the scales." Ennahda is ready for this political fight now. The longer the delay, the more they are concerned that their rivals will build their strength, or find reasons to deny them a chance to enter the ring.

On the streets, the fear is not only about the lack of a clear political process. It is also about what might come next. Such questions are especially pertinent because Tunisia's secularism was forced on the population. Headscarves were banned in public buildings and universities, and men with beards were viewed with suspicion by police and employers. Mr Ben Ali repressed any suggestion of religious piety in public life, banning Ennahda and hunting its members.

Now some fear that the secular nature of society might be overturned by an Islamist majority-government, despite assurances from Ennahda's leadership. Unlike Egypt, where the Mubarak government allowed some religious expression and took care to stay ahead of the increasing religiosity of ordinary people, Tunisia has almost no experience of Islamist influence in government. Thus even small actions such as the storming of the cinema become magnified, because of the worry that an Islamist government might curtail social freedoms.

The simple way to solve these issues would be an election, where political parties put forward their manifestos and the people decide. The trouble is that politics is not just about public opinion but about mobilising that opinion. The Islamist parties - both in Tunisia and in Egypt - are the best organised, having developed robust structures to remain alive during the long years of repression. The other political parties in Tunisia were either co-opted by the Rally for Constitutional Democracy, the ruling party of Mr Ben Ali, or so weakened by years of one-party rule that they are no longer effective.

In addition, the Islamist parties claim that their brand of politics infused with religion represents the will of the people, who appear increasingly devout.

That's partly true - Islamist parties are indeed the chief representatives of religion in political life. And it is also true that there is more religiosity in public life, visible both on the streets of Cairo and Tunis, and in the weight given to pronouncements by religious figures. What isn't yet clear is the third link in this logic: will people, religiously inclined or not, vote for a greater political role for religion? That is still unknown and only the ballot box can decide it.

The Islamists think they know the answer, that those for whom religion provides a basis to live by will also vote for religion as a basis to govern by. And the opposition to the Islamists also suspect that they know the answer, which is why they are keen to ensure that they are at their fighting weight before stepping into the ring.

The Islamists are keen to start the contest. They have been preparing for this political fight for years and are ready now. The opposition are not. It is an open question whether the delays are to build up their strength or, as the Islamists suspect, to find a way to rig the fight.

If the delay of Sunday's election helps the other parties to organise for a fair election, that would be good for democracy. But the longer the fight at the ballot box is postponed, the more skirmishes there will be in the streets outside.