SFAX Tunisia (Reuters) - From behind a niqab veil masking all but her eyes, Tunisian activist Fedia Mkaouar stops passersby in a busy street to make a pitch for her conservative Islamist party chasing votes in Sunday’s parliamentary election.
When Tunisians held their first ballot a few months after the 2011 fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, conservative Islamists like Mkaouar rejected the vote amid fierce debate over Islam in politics that threatened to engulf its nascent democracy.
Three years on, and a new constitution in place, Islamist parties, even conservatives, are joining the scramble for a place in a national assembly that will chose the government of one of Arab world’s most secular countries.
On Sunday Tunisians vote in only their second ballot since the revolt against Ben Ali’s corrupt and repressive rule, with 217 seats up for grabs among more than 100 parties ranging from secularists and socialists to Islamist movements.
With the two main contenders, one Islamist and one secular party, unlikely to win outright, a coalition may emerge. But whoever wins, the new government must tackle tough economic reforms and improve security to consolidate Tunisia’s gains.
“We have to convince people that everyone can contribute to save the country, veiled or not. All Tunisians have a place,” Mkaouar said campaigning in Sfax city. “Political Islam can play a role to reduce unemployment and confront corruption.”
Since the revolt, Tunisia’s sometimes shaky transition to full democracy has been seen as a model of compromise. A new constitution has been praised for recognizing Islam but also enshrining religious tolerance.
Whereas violent polarization over the role of Islam and former officials has tormented other “Arab Spring” nations such as Libya and Egypt, in Tunisia rivalries were more often than not worked out at the negotiating table.
But it was not always an easy accommodation for Tunisia, where many are proud of their secular tradition and feared Islamists threatened women’s rights and liberal education.
After the 2011 uprising, Islamists, long oppressed under Ben Ali, emerged as a political force. Chief among those was major Islamist party Ennahda who won the most seats in the first election and led a coalition government.
But also on the rise were conservative Salafists seeking an active role for religion in society. An ultra-conservative movement, Ansar al-Sharia, was blamed for attacks on secular Tunisians and later encouraged the storming the U.S. embassy.
The murder of two secular opposition leaders last year, tipped the country into a crisis. Under pressure and accused of being too tolerant of hardliners, Ennahda stepped down to make way for a transitional government and elections.
Ennahda and secular rivals Nidaa Tounes are the two major forces competing for the legislature and likely to seek partners in post-election deal-making. After Ennahda’s victory, they formed a coalition government with two smaller secular partners.
Much of the debate for Sunday’s vote has been focused on economic opportunities, security, and how to create jobs and development -- more than the questions over religious identity that dominated the 2011 legislative election.
“We consider the new constitution ended this debate, and no one is questioning the identity of the country, an Muslim Arab state,” Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda adviser. “We want to debate toward economy and security just like any other democracy.”
Despite its political progress, Tunisia is caught in a delicate balance as the government fights a low-intensity war with Islamist militants and cracks down on Tunisian jihadists who form one of the largest groups of foreign fighters in Syria.
A raid on Friday on a house on the outskirts of Tunis led to clashes between police and a group of militants, including five woman. Six militants including the women were killed.
Debate over Islam in politics maybe less fierce now than three years ago, but many secularists still harbor lingering fears hardline Islam threatens the values of modernity.
Beji Caid Essebsi, the head of secular party Nidaa Tounes, has called political Islam undemocratic saying its leaders want to impose a strict sharia interpretation of Islam.
“We want Tunisia to be moving ahead and look to the future, not look backwards. They are not democrats,” he said.
Ennahda party officials reject his criticism as divisive at a time when Tunisians need unity to consolidate their young democracy. Since leaving government, Ennahda, led by Islamist scholar Rached Ghannouchi, has sought to portray itself as a party that learned lessons from its past.
“There are extremists who use weapons and the state must reply with weapons. But there are other extremists gathered in legal parties and we must deal with them though ideas,” Ghannouchi said.
Unlike Ennahda, the Islamists of Mkaouar’s “Islah Front” or “Reform Party” do openly promote a larger role for Islam in Tunisia’s future, but they accept the rules of democratic progress and want to secure several seats in parliament.
During her campaigning in Sfax, one man approached Mkaouar in the street and pointed to her veil. He said: “How can you convince us in parliament behind this wall.”
“We want to promote political Islam and the values of Islam, but we will accept coexistence with all Tunisians and respect the right of others to wear what they want,” she replied.
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alison Williams