TUNIS (Reuters) - The Islamist leader whose party is now Tunisia’s most powerful political force met stock market executives on Wednesday to send the message that the government ushered in by the “Arab Spring” revolt will be business friendly.
Officials were still tabulating results from Sunday’s election — the first democratic vote in Tunisia’s history — but the moderate Islamist Ennahda party is on course to be declared the winner by a wide margin.
The vote, 10 months after a Tunisian vegetable seller set fire to himself in an act of protest that set in motion the “Arab Spring,” will resonate in other countries, especially Egypt and Libya, which are wrestling with their own transition from repression to democracy.
Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has gone to great lengths to reassure secularists and the business community, nervous about the novel prospect of Islamists holding power, that they have nothing to fear.
No Islamists have won power in the region since Hamas won a 2006 election in the Palestinian Territories.
Tunisia’s new leaders are also aware that they need urgently to address problems of poverty and unemployment that have grown worse since the revolution.
A senior party official said Ghannouchi met on Wednesday executives from the Tunis bourse “to send the message that the stock exchange is very important and that he is in favor of more listings to accelerate economic growth and to diversify the economy.”
The Tunis stock market index, which fell sharply when trading resumed after Sunday’s election, rallied on news of the meeting. Shares were up 1.13 percent at 10:34 GMT (6:34 a.m. EDT).
Ennahda, citing its own figures, says the election gave it 40 percent of the seats in the assembly which will draft a new constitution, appoint an interim government and set a date for new elections late next year or early in 2013.
That tally, if confirmed by the election commission counting the votes, would still require the party to form alliances with secularist parties if it is to have a majority. That is expected to dilute its influence.
Speaking in front of a jubilant crowd of party supporters on Tuesday night, a party official promised the Islamists would share power with secularists and eschew radical change.
“There will be no rupture. There will be continuity because we came to power via democracy, not through tanks,” campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said at party headquarters.
“We suffered from dictatorship and repression and now is an historic opportunity to savor the taste of freedom and democracy,” he said.
Shortly before he spoke, an Ennahda female candidate who does not wear the Islamic head scarf sang along to Lebanese and Tunisian pop songs on a stage. The party says her inclusion is proof of its moderate outlook.
Tunisia became the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” when Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest at poverty and government repression. His suicide provoked protests which forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee in January.
The revolution in Tunisia, a former French colony, in turn inspired uprisings which forced out entrenched leaders in Egypt and Libya, and convulsed Yemen and Syria — re-shaping the political landscape of the Middle East.
Defying predictions that Tunisia’s election would lead to violence and clashes between police and a hardline Islamist minority, Sunday’s vote passed off peacefully. It was applauded by Western monitors.
Only a trickle of official results has so far appeared — unlike votes under Ben Ali when the outcome was announced straight away, probably because it had been pre-determined.
Returns from a handful of districts which completed their counts showed Ennahda had 37 seats in the 217-seat assembly. Its nearest rival, the secularist Congress for the Republic, had 13.
Ennahda’s win is a remarkable turnaround for a group which earlier this was banned and had hundreds of its followers languishing in Ben Ali’s prisons.
Ghannouchi was forced into exile in Britain for 22 years because of harassment by police. A soft-spoken scholar, he dresses in suits and open-necked shirts while his wife and daughter wear the hijab.
Ghannouchi is at pains to stress his party will not enforce any code of morality on Tunisian society, or the millions of Western tourists who holiday on its Mediterranean beaches.
He models his approach on the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
In a slick and well-funded campaign, the party tapped into a desire among ordinary Tunisians to be able to express their faith freely after years of aggressively enforced secularism.
It also sought to show it could represent all Tunisians, including the large minority who take a laissez-faire view of Islam’s strictures, drink alcohol, wear revealing clothes and rarely visit the mosque.
Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond in Tunis; Writing by Christian Lowe