As the land that launched the Arab Spring heads into historic elections next week, all eyes are on the long-repressed Islamists — and whether a big victory for them will irrevocably change this North African nation and inspire similar conservative movements around the region.
Many fear that despite vows to uphold democracy, Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda Party is bent on imposing a theocracy that would roll back hard-won secularism and women's rights. Others see an opportunity to bring a moderate form of political Islam into the Arab world — one styled after the successful ruling party in thriving Turkey.
The Ennahda Party was brutally crushed by overthrown dictator Ben Ali in the 1990s, a policy tacitly approved by Western powers wary of militant Islam. Now, in the Oct. 23 election, it is set to become the largest party in the assembly that will write the nation's new constitution — largely because it is the best-organized force in the country.
Unlike many Islamist groups in the region, Ennahda has explicitly pledged to champion democratic values and women's rights, but its secular critics warn the party has a secret agenda to impose hardline Islam.
These fears have been inflamed by the appearance of new ultraconservative groups known as Salafists that have attacked movie theaters and TV stations for showing material they say denigrates Islam.
Once in power, many warn, Ennahda would swiftly seek to put its Islamist stamp on this tourist-friendly nation of 10 million. Tunisia's post-independence 1956 personal status code was unique in the Middle East and outlawed polygamy, mandated the woman's approval to get married and set limits on the man's power to divorce. It also declared men and women to be equal in terms of rights and citizenship.
In January, Tunisians stunned the world with a monthlong popular uprising that overthrew a seemingly entrenched dictator, inspiring similar revolutions across the Middle East.
How the country's nearly 100 political parties compete in elections and then work together afterward will be key for Tunisia and other countries such as Egypt and Libya, which followed Tunisian protesters' lead and overthrew their own dictators.
In Egypt, since its own uprising early this year, the Muslim Brotherhood has been allowed to form a party of its own after decades of repression. In Algeria, however, religious parties remain repressed after nearly winning elections in 1991 — a prospect that led to an army crackdown and years of deadly Islamic insurgency.
Ennahda has endorsed the personal status code and its platform lays down the right of women to "equality, education, work and participation in public life"; party founder Rachid Ghannouchi has emphasized they would work with both religious observant and non-observant Tunisians and cooperate with other political forces.
"We seek a consensus with the other parties because we believe that Tunisia must have a coalition government for the next five years, because the situation in the country cannot be handled by a single party," Ghannouchi said in an interview in August.
The party said it seeks to create 590,000 jobs over the next five years and reduce the unemployment rate to 8.5 percent, down from 14.4 percent. Unemployment was central to the complaints of the protesters earlier this year.
Critics, however, urge no one to be fooled by a party they say says one thing publicly and another to its supporters, masking a hardcore religious agenda.
They allege the group is behind the attacks by the Salafists, which they refuse to completely disavow.
"They engage in double talk, progressive and reactionary, to pursue a double strategy, both peaceful and violent," said Hamadi Redissi, co-founder of the Geneva-based Center for Arab Research and Analysis. "The country is in a state of extreme fragility and it agitates then excuses itself."
On Oct. 9, hundreds of Salafists marched on a private television station that had shown the animated movie "Persepolis," which they deemed sacrilegious for its portrayal of God. Marjane Satrapi's film about growing up during and after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. On Friday, a mob attacked the home of the station's owner following a protest against the film that attracted thousands.
On Sunday, there was a counter demonstration by 2,000 people marching through downtown Tunis in favor of a secular state and condemning Islamist violence — pointing to growing polarization ahead of elections.
Ennahda condemned the violence but at the same time spoke out against the "attacks on beliefs and sacred symbols," referring to the movie.
In his interview, Ghannouchi described the Salafists and other religious parties as "brothers," while acknowledging there were differences among them.
But some Western observers say the party's mixed message may be more old-fashioned electioneering than an insidious plot to trick Tunisia into a theocracy.
Just like U.S. politicians who have one message for the party base and another for centrists, Ennahda's candidates may be tailoring their message to their different audiences, said Chris Alexander, a Tunisia expert at Davidson College.
"For electoral purposes, they need Ennahda to be a fairly big tent," he said.
Knowing how people will vote in a country with no history of free elections is a challenge. Polling — a new phenomenon here — has shown that while half of the electorate is undecided, roughly a quarter of Tunisians would vote for Ennahda, suggesting it could take between a quarter and a third of the constituent assembly.
It's a pretty impressive tally for a party that was hounded out of existence in the early 1990s, with thousands of its members imprisoned on terrorism and other charges, or driven into exile.
Ennahda certainly had its flirtation with violence. Extremist elements of the group carried out attacks against the government in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the heavy crackdown, but since that time the leadership has repeatedly eschewed violence.
And in the years since, the group kept a skeleton organization throughout the country, usually carrying out charitable works for families of the detained.
As prison sentences came to an end over the last few years, the former detainees were absorbed into the organization.
When the president fled in January, Ennahda was the only group aside from the remnants of the ruling party with a presence everywhere in the country.
Alexander cautions that some of the rhetoric against the group might also have a distinctly opportunistic tinge to it.
"The secular left in Tunisia right now definitely feels it is on the ropes in terms of its ability to mobilize a large number of people," he said. "They have a strong need to create an image of a kind of political Islamist that could be a threat to democracy."
Even more important than their performance in the election will be how Ennahda gets along with the rest of the new constitutional body.
If Ennahda can show the Arab world that an Islamist party can do well in an election and then play by the rules of democracy, it would rewrite the conventional wisdom about political Islam that has dominated the region for the past three decades.
"We finally get to see whether an Islamic party outside Turkey can be democratic," said Alexander.