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Tunisian democracy witnesses rise of Islamists

world Updated: Oct 28, 2011 01:16 IST

The strong showing by a moderate Islamist party in Tunisia's elections this week has made this tiny coastal nation a test case for whether Islamist ideology and democracy can coexist in a region long dominated by Western-backed autocrats who have used religion as a foil, not a governing philosophy.

Leaders of Ennahda, the Islamist party that won more seats than any other in Tunisia's vote, say they hope to demonstrate that Islam can be an effective organising principle for their nation, and one that poses no threat to the West.

The party succeeded by appealing to a constituency far beyond the pious, encompassing the poor and others who had been marginalised during nearly a quarter-century of despotic rule by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. During the campaign, Ennahda emphasised a return to traditional Islamic values, as well as economic and social justice. The group promised to protect women's rights in this relatively liberal Arab nation.

Now Ennahda's rhetoric will be tested as the leading member of a governing coalition very likely to include secular groups.

Across the region, Islamists have for years lived in the shadows. They were marginalised, stigmatised and imprisoned. Things are changing now.

"People were presented with a choice: either Islam without modernity or modernity without Islam," said Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda. But that, he said, was a false choice: "We want Ennahda as an open space: open to religious people, non-religious, male, female, open to all Tunisians."

Ghannouchi said he hopes Tunisia's example of democracy will dispel stereotypes of Islamists as being violent, intransigent and enemies of the West.