by David Rosenberg

As Tunisians celebrated their first big step toward democracy in recent elections, many feared it may be followed by another step back as the Islamic Ennahda Party is likely to emerge as the biggest vote getter, setting the stage for a possibly searing conflict over the role of religion in the nascent democracy.

"They will certainly try dominating the political system," Sadok Belaid, professor at the School of Legal, Political and Social Sciences, told The Media Line. "The most important issue will be the program between religion and the state. I think we will have troubles and tensions over this. It will, I think, have a negative effect on the workings of democracy."

A small country and not among the key players in the Arab world, Tunisia nevertheless has pointed the way forward during the Arab Spring. It was the first country to witness mass protests and oust its leader, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Yesterday it became the first to conduct free and fair voting for elected office.

But Tunisia has also acted as a laboratory for the conflict between Islam and secular, liberal values that has bedeviled the region as it navigates a route toward democracy. In Egypt, polls show the party backed by the Muslim Brotherhood leading in legislative elections slated for next month while in Libya the leader of the transitional government declared on Sunday that it would be based on Islamic tenets.

Voters flocked to the polls, reports of irregularities were relatively small and praise for the country's first step toward democracy rolling in from Europe, the U.S. and much of the Arab world. "You made the Arab Spring: you're amazing," the Assabah al-Osbouii newspaper proclaimed.

Indeed, with the turnout exceeding 90% of the country's 4.1 million registered voters, election commission head Kamel Jendoubi said official results would not be released before Tuesday afternoon. But Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around the country Monday, with many showing Ennahda taking 40% and 50% of the vote in many districts, well beyond the 20-30% estimated by many polls.

Ennahda has sought to present a moderate image, running a female candidate who does wear the head covering favored by Islamists as its candidate in the capital of Tunis and its leaders have repeatedly stressed its fealty to democracy. But Ennahda was among the parties that declined to sign on to a 10-point human rights manifesto prepared by Amnesty International and has been accused of taking money from conservative Gulf monarchies.

The clash between secular and Islamic values has already made itself felt since Ben Ali's exit last January. Earlier this month, police used tear gas to disperse thousands protesting what they called blasphemy in the animated film Persepolis, which depicts an Iranian girl's coming of age story after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On election day, some polling places established separate section for male and female voters, apparently at the behest of the voters themselves. A few dozen people heckled the Ennahda leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, as he and his family voted in the capital of Tunis. The Reuters news agency reported that the hecklers shouted "Go away!" and "You are a terrorist and an assassin."

Allan Bradley, editor-in-chief of the news website Tunisia Live, lauded Tunisian voters, officials and politicians for the peaceful and organized polling and said politicians were engaging in "good rhetoric" the day after. But, he warned, that the country faces major conflicts ahead.

"You can say now that Tunisia is a democracy, but the real test will come a constituent assembly meets for the first time," Bradley told The Media Line. "You have tensions between Islamists and some bad blood engendered from several decades of oppression under Ben Ali. There isn't much trust out there."

The 217-member constituent assembly Tunisians voted for on Sunday not only is charged with drafting a new, democratic constituent, it will also put into place an interim government that will replace the technocrats that have run the country since Ben Ali went into exile.

The details of the process aren't spelled out, but experts have said it will select an interim president. The president, in turn, will appoint a new interim government, probably in consultation with the majority in the assembly. Although many of the parties have agreed on a one-year deadline for the assembly to complete its work, but there is no formal timetable.

That means that even before lawmakers get to the tough work of writing a constitution and addressing the Islamic-secular conflict, they must agree on a new government and the division of power.

"That will be the next drama," Bradley said. "The parties will have to decide how they will share power - who gets the presidency, prime minister, the various departments. That's the immediate test … This will involve big stakes and horse trading."

Not everyone is pessimistic about the outlook. Noureddine Miladi, senior lecturer in media and sociology at the University of Northampton, said the fact that Tunisians held free and fair elections and that politicians across the political spectrum have accepted the process is itself a major achievement.

"Regardless of the results, it restores the power and will of the people - and that's the most important thing," he told The Media Line, adding that Ennahda's commitment o democracy or lack therefore is no less proven than for the other parties. "I wouldn't judge them yet."

While Ennahda is apparently destined to emerge as the biggest party, it will have to form a coalition with one of the runner-up factions, which are likely to be the secular Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol. That will force it to compromise on Islamic principles, he said.



"Tunisians Celebrate Elections, Worry What Follows"