TUNIS: Tunisia gave birth to the "Arab Spring" and now it is again showing the way in the Middle East by demonstrating that moderate Islamists can win an election without causing a crisis.
But Arab countries who are wondering, along with the outside world, how Tunisia’s Islamists will exercise that power will probably have to wait at least a year for a definitive answer.
Early indications from Sunday’s historic election are that Ennahda, an Islamist movement which models itself on the moderate party of Turkish Prime Tayyip Erdogan, will have the biggest share of the vote, but no outright majority.
Contrary to some predictions, the vote passed off smoothly and peacefully, with no repeat of the violent clashes between police and hardline Islamists which broke out in the capital in the week before the election.
"This victory shows that it is possible for a non-radical, Islamist party to win an election," said Sofiane Ben Salah, an independent Tunisian political analyst. "This is the first time this has happened in the Arab world."
The wave of unrest shaking the Arab world began in Tunisia back in December, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in the city of Sidi Bouzid, set fire to himself in an act of protest that swelled into a nationwide uprising.
Weeks later, then-President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia, ending his 23 years in power.
Tunisia’s revolution touched a nerve in other Arab countries with similar problems: poverty, youth unemployment and repressive governments. Revolts broke out in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Milder protests rippled over Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman.
First step on long journey
For those countries where entrenched leaders fell, a new question arose: what if new democratic freedoms allow Islamists, sidelined for decades by secularist elites, to take power?
Sunday’s vote, for an assembly which will have one year to write a new constitution, provided some of the answers.
"I think the smooth outcome and lack of unrest is encouraging, but marks a first step rather than an end to Tunisia’s democratic journey," said Liz Martins, senior Middle East and North Africa economist with HSBC bank in Dubai.
The most immediate lessons will be drawn in Egypt, which staged its own revolt soon after Tunisia’s and will start voting in a multi-stage parliamentary election in November.
A party affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group which shares much of the same ideology as Tunisia’s Ennahda, is expected to be the front-runner.
Some argue that Ennahda’s victory will strengthen the hand of Egypt’s moderate Islamists in their contest with hardliners for influence in the Arab street.
"Any victory of … (Ennahda) would help the Brotherhood as the voice of liberal and moderate Islamists in Egypt," said Khalil Al-Anani, an Egyptian political analyst at Britain’s Durham University.
"I think if the Islamists won in Tunisia, this will push Islamists in Egypt to calm down fears and seek to build alliances and coalitions with secular and liberal forces.
"It will give the Brotherhood a kind of emotional power to go forward," he said.
More concrete lessons will have to wait.
Tunisia’s phased transition to democracy, and its complex election system, mean that Ennahda will not actually wield power in its own right for now.
As well as drafting a constitution, the assembly will choose a new interim president and government.
But it is just a way-station toward creating permanent institutions. The real political battle will shift to presidential and parliamentary elections likely to take place early in 2013.
Most predictions are that Ennahda will be the biggest party in the assembly, but will not have a clear majority, probably forcing it into an alliance with secular rivals.
Unofficial vote returns from some regions show that the party of Moncef Marzouki, a left-wing dissident who spent years in exile in France, was in second place.
The secularist Marzouki has said he is ready to work with Ennahda, so they could end up as coalition partners.
Ennahda itself favors a coalition, perhaps fearing that it if goes it alone, it will take the blame if anything goes wrong.
"Ennahda, although it is by far the most popular party, did not seem during the campaign to be in a rush to govern," said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, analyst at London-based global risk consultancy Control Risks.
"I think the political scene is going to remain pretty fluid over the coming year and we are unlikely to see a clear divide emerge among the various parties."
If the fight for power is being postponed until later, the stuttering economy cannot wait.
At the root of the revolution was anger at the lack of jobs in towns like Sidi Bouzid, in the interior. Yet since then, the caretaker authorities have done little to address the problem.
Government finances are precarious because the disruption caused by the uprising scared off tourists, a revenue mainstay. The finance ministry says there could be zero growth this year.
"Far from creating the jobs protesters were demanding in January, the revolution is likely to have led to a rise in unemployment," said HSBC’s Martins.
"There will be pressure on the assembly to be seen to be doing something." –Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis and Patrick Werr in Cairo