Secularists win in Tunisia

The secular Nidaa Tounes party won the largest number of seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on 27 October 2014, defeating its main rival, the Islamist party Ennahda, which just three years ago had swept to power as the North African nation celebrated the fall of its longtime dictator in the Arab Spring revolution.

Tunisians headed to the polls to vote for their first post-revolution parliament, marking the end of three years of transitional governance that has been marred by rising extremism and economic failure.

The swing away from Ennahda, a large, well-organized party built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood with deep roots throughout the country, to Nidaa Tounes surprised many. Nidaa Tounes is a newly formed alliance of former government officials, left-wing politicians and secularists, who came together in 2012 in opposition to the Islamists. The party had appeared unorganized and divided internally, while Ennahda was known to have a committed and disciplined core of supporters.

While Tunisians are overwhelmingly Muslim, and their sympathies lie with their fellow Arabs—in particular for those suffering in conflict, whether Palestinians, Syrians or Libyans—they have sharply rejected insurgent violence at home and support the Tunisian Army and the police as they battle Islamist insurgents active inside Tunisia.

The underlying divisions in Tunisian society, an Arab Muslim nation that has an ancient Mediterranean history, and lived under influences of French colonialism and forced secularism for more than 50 years since independence, are also well established and explain some of the backlash against the Islamists, analysts and observers added.

Tunisia is lauded as the sole success story of the Arab Spring but in recent years has been struggling to fight a rising insurgency anchored in its rural and border areas. Over 3,000 Tunisians have travelled to Syria to fight with extremist groups like ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra—making Tunisia the single largest contributor of foreign fighters.

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