The results from Tunisia’s election, the first since the revolution that toppled President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in January, aren’t in yet, but it’s looking likely that Al Nadha, the Islamist party, will win big.
Progressives in Tunisia, and all around the world, ought to hope that’s not the case.
It’s not that Al Nahda are radicals or terrorists, but by now it ought to be painfully clear that throughout the region the Islamists range from reactionary to ultra-conservative to, yes, extreme in the case of some in the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists). In Egypt, the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood is in a strong position for big gains if the ruling military junta actually decides to hold elections. In Libya, there’s a strong Islamist current to the revolution there, which doesn’t bode well for progressive Libyans, and at least some of the leading lights of the Libyan revolt are former Al Qaeda allies. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful behind-the-scenes force in the anti-Assad revolt there, although no one knows exactly how much influence they have among the majority Sunni opposition to the quasi-Shiite Alawite Assad regime. And of course, in Palestine, the reactionary Hamas is busily tossing monkey wrenches into the peace process.
According to AP, Tunisia will announce election results from Sunday’s vote tomorrow. But it adds:
“Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around the country Monday, with many showing a commanding lead for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. An Ennahda victory in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia could have wide implications for similar religious parties across North Africa.”
It’s important to understand why Islamists have so much support across the region. For decades, under various authoritarian regimes – as happened in 1970s Iran under the Shah – the only opposition that could emerge was based in mosques. The growing anger that has built up in the region for four decades, including anti-U.S. and anti-Israel passions and outrage over American support for various dictators was easily corralled by imams and mullahs who declared, “Islam is the solution.” And Saudi Arabia, the center of the reactionary counter-revolution, has been pouring money and other support to right-wing Islamists across the region, especially in Egypt. In Tunisia, where there’s no Federal Election Commission, Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent millions of dollars to back Al Nahda.
Here’s a telling excerpt from a New York Times investigative piece on Saudi and Arab Gulf states backing for Al Nahda (or Ennahda, as the Times prefers to call it):
“But for months, it has been at the center of attacks from liberal rivals and liberal-leaning election officials who accuse it of taking foreign money, mainly from the Persian Gulf. Islamist groups from Egypt to Lebanon are widely believed to rely on such support from the wealthier and more conservative gulf nations, but the charges have resonated especially loudly in Tunisia, in part because regulators have sought to stamp it out.
“’Everybody says that Ennahda is backed by money from the Arabian gulf,’ said Ahmed Ibrahim, the founder of the liberal Democratic Modernist Pole coalition, calling the outsize influence of foreign money a threat to Tunisia’s ‘fragile democracy.’
“Though Ennahda’s sources of financing have not been disclosed, its resources are evident. The first party to open offices in towns across the country, Ennahda soon blanketed Tunisia with fliers, T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers. Unlike other parties here, it operates out of a gleaming high-rise in downtown Tunis, gives away professionally published paperbacks in several languages to lay out its platform, distributes wireless headsets for simultaneous translation at its news conferences and hands out bottled water to the crowds at rallies.
“Ennahda party members have sponsored local charitable events like a recent group wedding for eight couples in the town of Den Den, or giveaways of meat for the feast at the end of Ramadan.
Alarmed at the flood of money, the commission overseeing the political transition sought last June to impose rules limiting campaign spending, banning foreign contributions and even barring candidates from giving interviews to foreign-owned news media, a move thought to be aimed mainly at thwarting the potential of the Qatar-owned network Al Jazeera to favor Ennahda candidates.
“In response, Ennahda withdrew its representative on the commission. Party officials have variously said that they pulled out because the commission was overstepping its authority, or that the restrictions curtailed their ability to reach Tunisians in expensive precincts abroad. But members of the commission say Ennahda objected only to the restrictions on foreign fund-raising.”