The United States should view Islamist gains in Tunisia as an opportunity to engage all parties involved in the region’s historic transition, writes POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney.
On October 23, Tunisia held the first free elections following the Arab Spring uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa this year. As expected, the Islamist Ennahda party won a plurality in the new National Constituent Assembly (90 of 217 seats), the body that will draft Tunisia’s new constitution and appoint an interim president and cabinet to govern for the next year. The next nearest party – the secular, center-left Congress for the Republic (CPR) – won 30 seats in the election, representing roughly 14 percent.
Ahead of the elections, many predicted that electoral success by Ennahda would be likely to stoke fear within two camps: Tunisian secularists anxious that the party may exploit this democratic opening to impose puritanical restrictions (in the Arab country known as the most socially liberal in the region), and political observers in the West who fear that Islamist parties will inevitably advocate policies less aligned with Western interests and values.
Indeed, some American observers view Ennahda’s victory as a setback and are encouraging the U.S. administration to isolate Ennahda and back its secular rivals. This type of alarmist reaction would in fact undermine American interests both in Tunisia and beyond. Instead, the U.S. should view Tunisia as an opportunity to confidently engage with all parties as this historic transition continues.
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