Tunisians prepare to head to the polls

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Campaigning closes in Tunisia Friday, two days before its first democratic elections, with a formerly banned Islamist party poised to dominate an assembly that will pave the way for a new government.

Nine months after the ouster of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolt that sparked region-wide pro-democracy uprisings, more than seven million potential voters will have a final chance to hear the main parties’ election promises at closing rallies planned countrywide.

Campaigning closes at midnight.

On Sunday, three days after the Arab Spring claimed its latest victim with the killing of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Tunisians will seek to turn the page on decades of post-colonial autocratic rule by electing 217 members of a constituent assembly from more than 10,000 candidates.

Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi urged Tunisians on Thursday to go vote “without fear”, and sought to give assurances that the poll will be fair.

The Islamist Ennahda, predicted by pollsters to win up to 30 percent of the votes, had warned Wednesday of a risk of voter fraud and vowed new uprisings if this was the case.

The election system has been designed to include as many parties as possible in the assembly that will re-write the constitution.

The body will have to address such crucial issues as the form of the new government and the guaranteeing of basic rights, including gender equality many fear Ennahda would seek to diminish.

It will also have the loaded task of appointing a president who will assign a caretaker government to run the country for the duration of the drafting process, expected to take a year.

The stakes are high. The success or failure of the election will send a strong signal to the people of the Arab world who drew courage from Tunisia’s ouster of a dictator to launch their own revolutions which have since toppled the rulers of Egypt and Libya and still threaten others.

Few could have imagined that the self-immolation on December 17 of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in a protest against his socio-economic plight would launch a popular movement that ousted the seemingly untouchable Ben Ali less than a month later.

Ben Ali had made himself an ally of the West by posing as a rampart against Islamism and the guarantor of the country’s economic success.

In an ironic twist, the Islamist Ennahda banned by Ben Ali is now polled to win the biggest bloc of votes, partly due to its charity work in poor parts of the country, mainly inland, largely ignored for investment by the previous regime.

Claiming to model itself on Muslim Turkey’s secular state model, Ennahda has sought to reassure the electorate by promising not to carve away at women’s rights, widely considered the most liberal in the Arab world.

But secularists have denounced what they call the party’s double-speak, accusing it of being modernist in public but radical in the mosques.

The leftist political spectrum stands divided before Ennahda, with more than 100 political parties in all contesting Sunday’s vote.

For the first time in history, the election is organized by an independent electoral commission that is expected to announce the results on Monday.

High stakes for women

Tunisian street vendor Ahlem Memi, 23, says not voting in elections Sunday would be shameful in a country mulling the future role of its women who stand at the vanguard of gender parity in the Muslim world.

The quintessential image of the modern, young Tunisian woman, Memi has a pair of fashionably large sunglasses perched cheekily on top of her head and sprints around energetically in jeans and a chic top while chatting to customers.

“Of course I will vote! It is a duty ... for a better life for all Tunisians, especially women,” she told AFP on a Tunis main street where veiled women are a rarity.

Between peddling tourist trinkets from a stall, Memi says she is weighing up three parties, “there are too many”, but knows one thing for sure: “Ennahda, never” ─ referring to the Islamist party polled to win the biggest bloc of votes.

“We fear they will introduce polygamy, oblige us to veil ourselves. Perhaps the Islamists will consign women to the home. They might close the cinemas ...”

Historic adherents of moderate Sunni Islam, Tunisians gained a progressive personal status code under independence leader Habib Bourguiba in 1956, unique in the Arab world.

The groundbreaking document enshrined gender equality, abolished polygamy and prevented men from unilaterally divorcing their wives in a country with a 98-percent Muslim majority, though it did not go so far as to guarantee women’s inheritance rights.

The now-abolished Rally for Constitutional Democracy under Bourguiba’s successor Ben Ali, seen by the West as a bastion against Islamization but toppled in a popular revolt against poverty and corruption in January, enforced a 25 percent female quota on its electoral lists.

The Ben Ali government restricted the wearing of Islamic headscarves for government officials and hospital staff, and prohibited university students from wearing the full-face veil, the niqab.

On Sunday, Tunisians will vote for a constituent assembly that will write a new constitution for the country. Several women’s groups backed by the Democratic Modernist Pole, a leftist political grouping contesting the election, are campaigning for it to include the status code.

By law, half the candidates are women, but few are likely to make it into the assembly as a proportional representation electoral system will see only those placed highest on each list make it through.

Women represent only seven percent of those heading some 1,500 candidates’ lists.

Ennahda has promised to uphold civil and women’s rights, but many suspect it of having a secret hardline agenda and accuse it of being vague on issues like polygamy.

Women played a prominent role in the revolution that ousted Ben Ali, like blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, 28, who was touted as a Nobel Peace Prize frontrunner for chronicling the protests that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

“Of course I will vote,” said 52-year-old cafeteria owner Saloua, who declined to give her surname, strolling in central Tunis with her mother Assia, 72.

“See, my mother wears a headscarf because she wants to. I don’t. We are both free to choose. We want it to stay that way.”

Twenty-year-old obstetrics student Jamila Ajni, however, said she will vote for the opposite reason: “so that we can wear our veils and practise our religion.” Ennahda was banned and many of its supporters jailed under Ben Ali.

Tunisian historian Faycal Cherif says the emancipation of women in Tunisia started in the 1930s with the teachings of Islamist scholar Tahar Haddad who considered female oppression un-Islamic.

His modernist ideas in turn inspired Bourguiba.

Tunisia produced the Arab world’s first female doctor, and women first voted in national elections in 1956.

They were taken up in the ranks of the police and army the same year.

“For us, it is normal now. It doesn’t bother us to get into a taxi driven by a woman or a plane piloted by a woman,” Cherif said.

“This is what we live every day, and I don’t think it can change easily.”

Even if Ennahda did well in elections, it was unlikely to gain a majority or be able to make any decisions without the other parties on the assembly.

In any event, “Tunisian society will never voluntarily turn back progress. There would be a massive mobilisation against any attempts at regression,” said the historian.

Yet obstacles remain.

Radhia Nasraoui is one of only a few dozen women to head an electoral list out of more than 10,000 candidates for an assembly of 217 members.

“Women participated in the fight against colonialism, the dictatorship of Bourguiba and the regime of Ben Ali, it is normal that they are candidates. What is not normal, is that there are few women heading lists,” the Communist Party candidate told AFP.

Her number two, Ahmed Mouelhi, a man, said many women’s families did not support their entry into politics.

“Many people, especially in the rural areas, still believe that women should focus on their family responsibilities,” he said.

Up to half of women in the poorer inland areas of Tunisia are illiterate.