Huge turnout in Tunisia’s Arab Spring election

Reuters reports: Tunisians turned out in huge numbers to vote in the country’s first free election on Sunday, 10 months after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a protest that started the Arab Spring uprisings.

The leader of an Islamist party predicted to win the biggest share of the vote was heckled outside a polling station by people shouting “terrorist,” highlighting tensions between Islamists and secularists being felt across the Arab world.

The suicide of vegetable peddler Bouazizi, prompted by despair over poverty and government repression, provoked mass protests which forced President Zine al-Abidine to flee Tunisia. This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, took his place in the queue outside a polling station in the El Menzah 6 district of the capital.

“This is an historic day,” he said, accompanied by his wife and daughter, both wearing Islamic headscarves, or hijabs. “Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today.”

As he emerged from the polling station, about a dozen people shouted at him: “Degage,” French for “Go away,” and “You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!”

Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, has associated his party with the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He has said he will not try to impose Muslim values on society.

In Tunisia, ideas about Islam, and restrictions on things like alcohol, are more relaxed than in many Arab countries.

“This morning I voted for Ennahda and this evening I am going to drink a few beers,” said Makram, a young man from the working class Ettadamen neighbourhood of Tunis.

Nevertheless, the party’s rise worries secularists who believe their country’s liberal traditions are now under threat.

Larbi Sadiki writes: Islamists define all things political in the Arab world. This applies to extremist Islamism as well as to civic Islamism.

Indeed, October 24, 2011, the day after the election, will be a turning point in the history of Tunisia. The Islamists will resoundingly establish themselves as a key political player in the country’s democratic transition. Thus far Tunisia has been run by Francophile elites favouring secular politics. In this regard, Tunisia will be following in Turkey’s footsteps.

Those who are not versed in Tunisian politics should go and stand in the square opposite the Municipality of Tunis and just absorb the architecture of political Tunisia. This square has no analogue elsewhere in the Arab world.

With the municipality to one’s back, the Sadiki school – founded by reformer Khayr al-Din Pasha – symbolises not only Ottoman connections, but also a reformist agenda begun more than 150 years ago. To the right, stands the Aziza Othman hospital, named after a woman who cultivated the earliest forms of civic networks in Tunisia.

Just opposite the Kasbah, the seat of government and the lush manicured trees shading the squares joining the prime minister’s office and the ministry of finance, the onlooker sees architectural syncretism at its best. Various shapes of domes and minarets – Tunisian and Ottoman – dot the skyline of Tunis, the country’s hub of political power. Some of my pro-democratisation students from the University of Exeter and I brainstormed on how to understand this perennial quest for synthesis in Tunisia.

It is this synthesis which will triumph. The embrace of the Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a mini-Champs Elysees with its open-air cafes, a refuge for all, including the unemployed, and the Medina, the Old City, hints at how Tunisia will vote.

Tunisians champion syncretism, and this is really the crux of Tunisia’s “political culture”. They do not wish to ditch their Arab and Islamic heritage. Nor do they wish to detach from the brighter spots of reformist politics in their history. French and European inputs into the mix of their culture are now deep-rooted and appreciated.

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