TUNIS – Tunisia's brave protesters, who toppled dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, may have captivated the world and inspired similar revolts across the Arab world. But ahead of their first democratic elections this Sunday, Tunisians are far less united than they seemed just a few months ago.
"This election is a Zionist-American plot to rip Islam out of Tunisia," Abdullah, a bearded, middle-aged, Tunisian Islamist, told me last Friday near Kasbah Square in central Tunis, the site of many government buildings and several of the largest demonstrations during the January revolution.
Abdullah, along with thousands of other Islamists who also came out to protest, was furious over a private Tunisian TV station's broadcast last week of the French-Iranian film Persepolis, which includes a depiction of God -- a sacrilege for devout Sunni Muslims. The Islamists hit the streets in the capital, and in towns throughout Tunisia, after noontime prayer. Some of the protesters attempted to burn down the TV station that had broadcast the film. The controversial broadcast may have triggered the protest, but chants soon widened to include calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Tunisia.
"Even if the elections weren't happening, you can't touch God; it's forbidden in Islam," said Abdullah, affirming that his movement's political aspirations applied in the long-term, not just during campaign season.
Days before the election, Tunisia is fiercely divided between its secular elite and its reemerging Islamist movements, most of which had gone underground under Ben Ali for fear of imprisonment or torture. Their numbers are unknown at present, but polls for the impending elections have served as clear indicators: The long-repressed Islamist al-Nahda ("Renaissance") party is projected to win some 20 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, a result that would transform it into the largest party in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
This is making many secular Tunisians and those in the country's minority groups, particularly the Berber and Jewish communities, very wary. And the recent anti-Persepolis riots have exacerbated the situation, heightening worries that the upcoming elections could be less than the positive step toward the democracy that Tunisia needs most right now.
"Jews are worried everywhere, but in Tunisia more so, because of the extremist problem," said Roger Bismuth, leader and spokesman for Tunisia's 2,000-strong Jewish community. "I think the big mistake is to mix up a country's politics and economics with the religion. I think if we get to that point, the country cannot function."
Al-Nahda, meanwhile, is aware of growing fears about its suspected illiberal intentions and has worked hard to project a moderate image. "Nahda does not represent Islam," spokeswoman Yusra Ghannouchi, who is also the daughter of the party leader, Rached Ghannouchi, told me. "Freedom of speech and freedom of expression is of paramount importance and we have striven for this. We are not for restricting these freedoms. But this should be done responsibly and with respect for the other's opinion."
Ghannouchi added that the same media that decried an attack on freedom of speech following the Islamist protest of the broadcast of Persepolis stood silent under Ben Ali, and colluded with his repression of freedom of speech -- a tacit shot at the country's secular elite.
"In this phase leading up to the elections, it's unfortunate that there are people provoking more tensions, more divisions, more fears, more hysteria," she said. "We believe this is a time to provide more calm and more confidence for people to go forward to this historic election and to focus on it as our route toward democracy."
Secular movements, like the Ettajdid party, are crying foul. They call al-Nahda's centrist position a façade masking more sinister intentions.
"It has two lines," said Abdelaziz Messaoudi, a member of Ettajdid's political committee. "Sometimes the leaders say they have nothing against the progressive gains of Tunisian society, but in the mosques, it says: ‘No, we are an Islamic party. We want to fully apply the precepts of Islam.'"