Tunisians Weigh Democracy or Islamic State

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TUNIS, Tunisia -- The tiny North African nation of Tunisia held its first free elections since its independence from France in 1956, this weekend.

The European Union will have a delegation of 180 observers on hand. The United States and some Arab countries will also have observers in place.

Will Tunisians choose democracy or Islam?

Arab Uprisings

The spark that ignited the Tunisian protests last December inspired Arab uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. The demonstrations ended with the ouster of Tunisian President Ben Ali.

Ten months have passed since Ali's departure and Tunisians are now choosing representatives for a new Assembly. Those elected representatives will draft a new constitution.

CBN News talked to several people on the streets of Tunisia.

One young woman said she is proud that her country is an example to other Arab nations in the region.

"It's a good thing," she said.

Eighty political parties are on the ballot, but some of the strongest are Islamists who want a more religious society.

According to estimates, 98 percent of Tunisians are Muslim, however many oppose the establishment of a theocratic state.

"All the young people want to have the right to choose what they believe and what's best for our life. It's more important than democracy," another young woman said.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is optimistic about Tunisia.

"I think of all the Arab Spring countries, it's the one that has the best chance of moving reasonably smoothly to democracy," Abrams said.

"I'm hopeful also that the Islamist party in Tunisia, the Ennahda Party, turns out to be a reasonable and moderate party because that would be a good model for the rest of the region," he explained.

Religious Heritage

While Tunisia may be the most secular nation in North Africa, many people continue to visit the tiny country because of its religious heritage and to tour the ruins of ancient Carthage.

The city of Carthage was a thriving metropolis only 150 years after the life of Christ. It was the center of Christianity in all of Africa.

But today, Christianity is almost non-existent and only several thousand Christians remain in all of Tunisia.

The Roman Catholic Church is the only church recognized by the government. However, there is a small, indigenous church in Tunisia made up of former Muslims who are now Christians.

They allowed CBN News to video one recent baptism only if we agreed to obscure the face of the person being baptized.

Former Muslims Persecuted

Most of the church's former Muslims have been rejected by their families, neighbors and friends.

Some like Ali, a former Muslim, , have been interrogated by the police. They tried to persuade him to return to Islam.

Ali said one of his interrogators asked if he was telling people about Jesus.

"I said if they ask me like a police officer and you asked me, I have to defend my faith. He said that can make problems," Ali said.

Even the young people CBN News interviewed on the street also said Tunisians should be free to choose their faith.

One young woman said she would have a problem with a Muslim becoming a Christian.

"To be honest, yeah, on the religion side yeah," she explained. "It hurts me a little bit, but it's her choice."

When CBN News asked her if she felt the government should say something about it, she said, "No, it's his choice."

Another young woman said she is proud to be a Muslim woman, but she believes everyone has the right to choose what they want.

And many young Tunisians say what they want most are jobs and a better economy.

Nearly one-third of those between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed.

Added Economic Pressures

The war in neighboring Libya has brought added economic pressures. Tens of thousands of refugees -- mostly Libyan women and children -- have poured over the border into camps like the one CBN News visited in the southeast Tunisian town of Dehibat.

Libyan refugee children were having lunch, a little beans and rice. They get three meals a day in the camp.

One young girl said she had been living in the camp since last spring.

"We left our country last spring because the fighting was severe," she explained. "We're getting good schooling here. "

Berber refugees from 10 Libyan families, numbering around 50 people, were given temporary housing by a Tunisian man.

They were surprised by his hospitality.

"We didn't expect this treatment," one man said. "In spite of the fact that we don't know each other, he treated us as a family."

Breaking Point?

But as the war drags on, one must wonder if the Libyans will over stay their welcome in Tunisia.

The president of the Red Crescent Society in Tatouine told CBN News that his organization is providing free medical care for the Libyans at several recently established health clinics.

Dr. Tounuqti Bashir suggested that Tunisians are happy to help the refugees, but the community may be nearing a breaking point.

"Until now not in good situation and the arrival of the Libya refugee has exacerbated the situation," he said.

So, what do Dr. Bashir and most Tunisian's want now for themselves and their Libyan neighbors?

"The good life! " exclaimed Dr. Bashir.

Most Tunisians are hoping that will come as the fighting in Libya ends, their refugee guests return home, and after their Tunisia's historic election is held.

--Published Oct. 21, 2011. 

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CBN News
Gary Lane

Gary Lane

CBN News International Correspondent

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