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Coalition Talks, Unrest in Tunisia After First Vote of Arab Spring

Rachid Ghannouchi (R), leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, speaks with his secretary-general Hamadi Jbeli (L) during a news conference in Tunis, October 28, 2011
Rachid Ghannouchi (R), leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, speaks with his secretary-general Hamadi Jbeli (L) during a news conference in Tunis, October 28, 2011

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

This week, the first elections of the Arab Spring took place in Tunisia, the country where the protest movement began.

Tunisians, in their first free elections, voted Sunday for an assembly to write a new constitution. The Constituent Assembly also has to appoint a president and form a temporary government.


Late in the week, there was violence in Sidi Bouzid, the city where the protests against Tunisia’s longtime president began. The violence started after election officials cancelled the results of seats won by the Popular List party. The officials said there were campaign violations.

Official results show that an Islamist party, Ennahda, won more than forty percent of the seats in the assembly. Ennahda has begun talks with other parties on forming a coalition.

Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi said Friday that his party would work to form a new government in "friendliness" and "brotherhood."


Mr. Ghannouchi called for calm. He said his party would respect women's rights and Tunisia's pro-Western values.

The election was widely considered free and fair. Ennahda won three times as many seats as its nearest competitor. A liberal party, the Congress for the Republic, finished second with thirty of the two hundred seventeen seats.

Another liberal party, the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, was third, with twenty-one seats.

Tunisia's former government banned Ennahda. The party says its positions are moderate and similar to those of Turkey.

Tunisian women have many rights, including the right not to cover their head. Yusra Ghannouchi, a party spokeswoman and daughter of its leader, says Ennahda will defend and even increase women's rights.

YUSRA GHANNOUCHI: "This is the not the state's business to impose any particular type of dress on women. This is absolutely a matter of personal choice."

But some people are worried that the party will support the rise of political Islam. Eric Goldstein with Human Rights Watch says Ennahda offers mixed messages.

ERIC GOLDSTEIN: "The leaders of the party have been reassuring to all Tunisians. No, we're not going to make women wear the veil. No we're not going to ban alcohol. We want to achieve our goals only through democracy. What's making some people anxious is the discourse of some of the mid-ranking members of the party, some of the preachers who preach in a really intolerant way."

Still, twenty-nine-year-old blogger and journalist Haythem el Mekki says much of the worry over Islam is fueled by the West.

HAYTHEM EL MEKKI: "The Islamists are political activists. Like any political activists we should criticize them when we think they are wrong, and we should say they did a good thing when we agree with them."

Tunisia's revolution ousted President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January. Many Tunisians say they are hopeful for the future. Thirty-four-year-old Waesi Adili is an unemployed computer technician.

WAESI ADILI: "I think Tunisia has escaped from the old regime. Hopefully the political system will offer credibility, dignity, tolerance -- and work.”

The Arab world will be watching Tunisia's democratic experience. Steven Ekovich is a political scientist at the American University of Paris.

STEVEN EKOVICH: "The problems are long-term, they're deep. It's going to take a long time for Tunisia to pull out of it. But if any country can do it, I think Tunisia can."

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributing: Lisa Bryant, JulieAnn McKellogg and Edward Yeranian