After Tunisia'srevoltinspired the Arab Spring uprisings, the liberated country holds its first elections and begins rewriting its constitution.
Sunday, November 6, 2011 - 20:30

This year's uprising in Tunisia inspired revolts throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and now the world is watching just as closely as the liberated country holds its first elections and begins to rewrite its constitution.

Amos Roberts follows the campaign from the frantic electioneering on the streets, with more than 11,000 candidates competing for seats, to the historic polling day itself.

And he examines the key campaign battleground over whether Tunisia should have religious or secular leadership.

The ultimate winner is Islamic party, Ennahda, which promises to respect democracy and tolerance, but will this mix of religion and politics create stability or lead to more turmoil?

WATCH - Click to see Amos's story.

VIDEO EXTRA - In this extra feature to go with Amos's story, he meets a group of teachers in Kasserine, who say they've been forgotten in the Tunisian revolution. They're now protesting over the lack of jobs and their struggle to survive.

INTERACTIVE - Use our interactive guide for more on the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, including all of this year's Dateline stories from the region.

ARAB UPRISINGS - Get the latest news coverage on the Arab world's unrest from SBS's World News Australia.



You can also click here to see all of Dateline's stories on the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.



It's been a tumultuous year for the Arab world, a wave of anger and dissent across the region has seen regimes shaken and dictators toppled. Fittingly, Dateline's last story for the year comes from Tunisia, where the whole Arab Spring began. It's just held the first elections since the overthrow of President Ben Ali. Tunisians voted to hand significant power to an Islamic party that promises to respect democracy and tolerance. But will this volatile mix of religion and politics create stability or lead to more turmoil? Amos Roberts reports.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

A week out from the poll, Tunisians have election fever. There are more than 11,000 candidates competing for seats in a Constituent Assembly. The winners will rewrite Tunisia's constitution and form a new political elite.

TAREK KAHLAOUI, INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE (Translation): It's number 23. Voice of Youth List. I am the head of the list, I'm the candidate.

Among them - Tarek Kahlaoui, a well-known blogger running as an independent candidate in eastern Tunis.

MAN (Translation): Thank you, what's your name?

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, CANDIDATE (Translation): Souad Abderrahim, a pharmacist.

And Souad Abderrahim, campaigning in northern Tunis - a pharmacist, businesswoman and candidate for the election favourite - Islamist party Ennahda.

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): We're the Ennahda movement, this is the list of candidates.

Souad Abderrahim is the only woman running for Ennahda who doesn't wear a headscarf. Party leaders hope her presence will reassure Tunisians who fear the Islamists will force women to wear a hijab or even a veil, the niqab.

WOMAN (Translation): I want to know something, will women have to;. Okay, I wear a hijab, but will we have to wear a hiqab?

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): No, you won't. You won't have to wear a hiqab, you won't have to wear a hijab or to take it off. You are free. For example, I don't wear a hijab. Ennahda gives you a choice.

WOMAN (Translation): Will men have four wives?

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): Not at all.

Souad says Ennahda's political opponents are scaremongering.

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): People associate Ennahda with women at home, women forced to wear a hijab, men having four wives. It's all propaganda from our opponents. It's brainwashing - we'll keep putting things straight.

TAREK KAHLAOUI (Translation): I'm the head of the list, there are many parties, you need independents to watch the others, we need independents to be elected. Some parties want to rule like pharaohs.

As a student activist, Tarek Kahlaoui was persecuted by the old regime. He fled to the United States, where he lectures in Islamic history. Now he's taken leave to come home and try his hand at politics.

TAREK KAHLAOUI (Translation): We want young people, most parties are based on old people.

WOMAN (Translation): Who started the revolution?

TAREK KAHLAOUI (Translation): The young. They don't exist in politics, that's why we want a balance between the old and the young.

Tarek's secret weapon today is his mother. She's a midwife who helped bring many of the young people from this poor neighbourhood into the world.

MOTHER (Translation): Please understand, the people we elect must cut ties with the past, if we don't, we will never improve. They must cut ties with the past. That's all.

TAREK KAHLAOUI: Campaigning is new in Tunisia. So campaigning in the first election certainly is important. Learning how to campaign in Tunisia starts now and for someone who would like or who wishes to campaign in the future, this is a good training session.

REPORTER: This is politics 101.

TAREK KAHLAOUI: Politics 101 in Tunisia.

MAN (Translation): What makes your party different?

TAREK KAHLAOUI (Translation): An elected regional assembly, you won't find that anywhere else in any party's program.

It's like selling something, here we are selling politics.

As a militant student union leader, Souad Abderrahim spent time in jail for her beliefs. Although not an Islamist herself, she identifies with many of Ennahda's goals - and attacks secular parties who question Tunisia's Muslim identity.

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): They ask "œWho says Islam is the religion of Tunisia?" No one needs to tell us the Tunisian people are Muslims.

CROWD (Translation): Faithful together for Islam!

The people want a civil state!

The chasm between Islamic and secular Tunisia has become the key battleground for this election. A week before the poll, thousands of secular Tunisians marched in support of free speech. They rallied after Islamists attacked a local TV station for screening a movie that offended them. They accused Nessma TV of blasphemy and mobilised thousands of protesters around the country.

PROTESTER (Translation): Nessma provoked a whole people? It didn't do anything! Now who's provoking today?

With the dictatorship gone, Tunisia's culture wars flare up easily. This religious woman had her sign snatched away by secular protesters who support free speech - but resent her presence.

WOMAN (Translation): Everyone knows what this protest is about - I want to mix with everyone.

MAN (Translation): Who said you couldn't?

WOMAN (Translation): I was told to go away. You have the right to be here, so do I - it's my country too.

MAN (Translation): The man who ripped her poster does not believe in freedom of expression.

Secular Tunisians point to the past to explain their fear of the Islamists. This man is here to remind people that in the late 1980s Ennahda was an extremist group involved in acts of violence.

MAN: This is an article that has the name of 15 people, almost 15 people who was burned with acid, and the name of people that were arrested for it.

REPORTER: This is Ennahda which is now the most important party going into the first elections.

MAN: Yeah, and don't ask me why. I don't know.

REPORTER: You don't trust them?

MAN: I don't trust them at all.

To find out more about Ennahda, I head to Kasserine - a poor region in Tunisia's interior that was the crucible of the uprising. This is where Ennahda has chosen to hold one of its final rallies. Gone are decades of repression, when many of Ennahda's leaders were jailed or exiled, and when police sometimes arrested people just for praying too often. Rachid Gannouchi is the founder and leader of Ennahda.

RACHID GANNOUCHI, FOUNDER OF ENNAHDA (Translation): When you get into the polling booth you will find your conscience in front of you. But what's more important than Ennahda winning a majority or a minority? What is important? It's the election process to succeed, for the wheel to turn for Tunisia to achieve this dignity and this honour to be the first Arab country to hold free and fair elections. This is what matters.

Gannouchi has condemned extremist, violent strands of Islam as un-Islamic, rejecting any suggestion Tunisia would follow a similar path to Saudi Arabia or Iran. Gannouchi often cites Turkey as a model for Tunisia - a secular, democratic country with a moderate Islamic party in power. But many Ennahda supporters think moderate is a dirty word.

MAN (Translation): Islam has always been our religion, Islam has always been the same and in relation to it being moderate, this term, I tell you, is alien to us here.

MAN 2 (Translation): We want the Koran to be applied, the thief to get his penalty, the adulterer to get his penalty and so on. We don't want to apply part of the Koran, or more than the Koran, no, the whole Koran, the sharia.

There's tension in Ennahda between those who see it as a religious movement and others who think it should concentrate solely on politics. Its leaders can present one face to their supporters and another to the secular population - what Tarek Kahlaoui calls a double discourse.

TAREK KAHLAOUI: Who is, just tell me who is the politician who does not have double discourse. Being a politician means, implies by essence, that you should have double discourse. You wouldn't be a good politician, a smart politician, if you don't have double discourse.

It's the day before the election - officially declared as a day of silence. Campaigning is forbidden, and there's nothing for candidates to do but wait while the voters make up their minds. Tarek Kahlaoui's family paid a high price for its politics under the dictatorship, his father was jailed for three years because he opposed the regime and Tarek was forced to escape the country and live abroad.

MOTHER (Translation): We never ever expected this day to come. It is because the Arab regimes have been void of democracy for centuries. That is why we never expected to see this day.

Souad Abderrahim is convinced Tunisians have nothing to fear from Ennahda but her own teenage children aren't convinced. They say friends don't understand why their mother chose to join an Islamic party.

DAUGHTER (Translation): Young people are afraid, especially the women, they are scared of having to wear the hijab, of having to stay at home, of being unable to go to work or go to school, of being able to go out.

REPORTER: Did you have any questions for your mother like this? Were you worried about this?

DAUGHTER (Translation): I'm afraid now, I'm afraid Ennahda will turn against the young.

On election day, Souad and Tarek both decide to vote early - and so it seems has much of Tunis. But while Tarek quietly takes his place at the back of the line. The Ennahda candidate waltzes straight past the waiting crowds.

MAYOR (Translation): Madam, there's a queue there. What does this mean? These people have been waiting. I'm a mayor and have been waiting since 7.

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): No, I'm sorry, everyone is the same. We asked the committee;.

MAYOR (Translation): No, you should ask everyone in the line and then join it.

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): Your right.

WOMAN (Translation): Did you join the queue?

SOUAD ABDERRAHIM, (Translation): No.

WOMAN (Translation): Join the queue, please.

Souad swaps places with an Ennahda supporter at the front of the queue. Whatever the results, Soaud and Tarek are both convinced that today marks a decisive break from Tunisia's past. As night falls the last votes are cast and officials prepare for the count. Among the international observers here, a former President of Peru.

ALEJANDRO TOLEDO, FORMER PRESIDENT OF PERU: It's 7:00 at night, 7:25, Sunday, the polls are closed, in a few minutes we're going to begin the counting, but there's already a winner. Democracy has won in this country.

This is what democracy sounds like. The slow, careful counting of votes. Honest, fair and transparent, at least in this polling station, everything the old Tunisia was not.

Within a couple of days it becomes clear Ennahda has won around 40% of the vote. Tarek Kahlaoui didn't win a seat. But Souad Abderrahim did. Ennahda means 'Renaissance' and in less than a year that's exactly what's happened to the party that will help shape Tunisia's future. It's a prospect that scares many people - and thrills many others.




Additional Research



Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

6th November 2011