Yusra Ghannouchi, daughter of Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, speaks to media in Tunis yesterday
The Islamist Ennahda party that emerged dominant in Tunisia's first free vote will not seek to impose Sharia-style restraints on a moderate-minded society whose economy relies on Western tourists, analysts say. © Lionel Bonaventure - AFP
Yusra Ghannouchi, daughter of Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, speaks to media in Tunis yesterday
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Mariette le Roux, AFP
Last updated: October 25, 2011

Tunisia's Islamists will '"steer clear of radicalism"

The Islamist Ennahda party that emerged dominant in Tunisia's first free vote will not seek to impose Sharia-style restraints on a moderate-minded society whose economy relies on Western tourists, analysts say.

The party, claiming to have taken a commanding lead as ballots were still being counted, has said it will seek a coalition on a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint a caretaker government.

Even if it manages to put together a majority alliance to give it a bigger say, Ennahda will have no choice but to toe the line of consensus, said the analysts.

"Ennahda will be mindful not to offend its coalition partners, and also the youth who voted for it, who aspire to a certain way of life," Issaka Souare, a north African specialist at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told AFP.

"It will need the buy-in of other members of the assembly in all decisions."

Official results in Tunisia's first-ever democratic elections, held nine months after the toppling of long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, are expected Tuesday.

Ennahda on Monday claimed to have captured the biggest block of votes, between 20 and 40 percent, immediately seeking to allay the fears of investors and women.

"We would like to reassure our trade and economic partners, and all actors and investors, we hope very soon to have stability and the right conditions for investment in Tunisia," executive party member Abdelhamid Jlassi told journalists in Tunis.

He stressed the party was open to coalition talks with all parties "without exception." Most of the other parties on the assembly appear set to be ones with leftist, liberal leanings.

"We respect the rights of women ... and equality between Tunisians whatever their religion, their gender or their social status," senior Ennahda member Nourreddine Bhiri told AFP.

Tunisia, which gave birth to the Arab Spring that claimed its latest dictator Thursday with the killing of Moamer Kadhafi of Libya, saw its neighbour to the east adopt Islamic Sharia law Sunday as the basis of all the new regime's laws.

Ennahda founder Rached Ghannouchi in the 1970s called for the strict application of Sharia law in Tunisia to restore order in a society he said had become depraved.

But he has toned down his discourse in recent years.

Last month, he told AFP: "The code of personal status and women's rights cannot be touched. Women make up half of society and we need their votes."

Secularists, women's groups and other detractors accuse Ennahda of being moderate in public and radical in the mosques.

Whatever its programme, "there is no chance that Ennahda will be able to dictate its laws into the new constitution, even with a coalition," Tunisian historian Faycal Cherif told AFP.

"There are certain principles Tunisian society holds dear that the other parties will not concede on -- like gender equality, the separation of church and state."

Pierre Vermeren, a Paris-based Maghreb expert, said Ennahda appeared headed for about a third of assembly seats "and won't be able to do anything on its own".

"The elections have also shown something else: the votes of the liberal, leftist and secular parties add up to about 25 to 30 percent, which is huge. One does not see that in any other country of the Maghreb.

"Even though they haven't yet officially joined forces, these parties will be a strong force in the assembly."

Added Cherif, Ennahda will keep an eye on upcoming national elections for a government to replace the caretaker body that will remain in place for the duration of the constitution-writing process, expected to take a year.

"Ennahda will not want to give the idea that it is forcing itself on society."

Souare said a strong Ennahda will have no choice but to adapt its tone to a foreign audience.

"It cannot afford to damage Tunisia's relations with Western countries," he said -- pointing to tourism which represents almost a tenth of GDP.

"Tourists are alcohol drinkers," said Souare of fears by some that an Islamist government may ban liquor, among other conservative measures.

Tourism is a big currency earner in Tunisia, bringing in 780 million euros from January to September 2011, a drop of 39.4 percent from 2010.

Islam is the official religion in the country, which has hitherto had a secular state, though its president must be a Muslim under the outgoing constitution.

A Muslim majority of more than 90 percent has lived peacefully for years with religious minorities, including Jews.

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