Voters in the Tunisian capital looked bemused this week when Suad Abdel-Rahim of the Islamist Ennahda party went on a walkabout to drum up support ahead of elections on Sunday. In dark glasses, dyed curly hair and trendy white sports cap, she hardly fitted the image of the party whose ascendance after an uprising ended the rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali this year has Tunisian secularists and Western allies worried.
“We are the Ennahda party, we are candidates in the election. We come to introduce ourselves in your neighbourhood,” she stopped to tell a woman in the street, surrounded by a team of party volunteers on the campaign trail.
The potential voter, Siham, looked surprised but launched into her fears of what an Ennahda-ruled Tunisia would look like. Abdel-Rahim pulled out a pamphlet to explain Ennahda’s programme. It promises to ensure gender equality and women’s freedom to work, educate themselves and wear what they want, she says — gains of the secularism that for decades set post-independence Tunisia apart from most Arab and Muslim countries.
“I’ll have a read of the leaflet and see, but I’ve no fears for now,” Siham said afterwards. “As long as she is not wearing a hejab (headscarf) and can talk about their programme, then we can all stand hand-in-hand and vote for Ennahda!”
Tunisia’s uprising last December and January started a regional movement of revolt that claimed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed in Libya on Thursday. Sunday’s election, the first free vote in Tunisia, will create a special assembly charged with writing a new constitution that will pave the way for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections. But with Ennahda poised to come out on top in the weekend vote, the party and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi are trying hard to allay the fears of secularists at home and Western allies.