By Andrew Hammond
TUNIS (Reuters) - Secularists hope Tunisia's gradual approach for moving to an open political system from a police state will help box in Islamists but it has created a political and security vacuum that could end up helping them.
Tunisians forced out president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali via street protests in December and January, and over 90 political parties have sprung up in the newly freed public space.
Secular parties, policy-makers and Western powers are preparing for a future where the leading Islamist party Ennahda, driven abroad and underground by Ben Ali, is a key force in the North African country but working out how to limit its impact.
"There are colossal suspicions about Ennahda. No one believes their commitment to democracy and pluralism. Their discourse in Arabic is very different to their discourse in French, particularly in rural areas," said George Joffe, a politics professor at Cambridge University.
He said the fear was not just of its Islamist platform but of a gradual slip into the one-party authoritarianism of the previous era if one better-organized group dominates.
It is partly because of these concerns that Tunisia is taking its time before getting to any elections. Elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution have been delayed to October, and there is no timeframe for parliamentary and presidential elections that follow.
"There is a reasonable chance Ennahda will emerge the strongest party but not having a majority. The best guess is there will be a secular-center left majority in parliament," a Western diplomat said.
The incumbent political class, divided between those who accommodated and those who challenged Ben Ali's corrupt government, hope Ennahda will not gain more than a quarter of the vote, said economist Marouane Abassi.
"Ennahda could get around 25 percent which is manageable, but more than that would be difficult for Tunisia," he said.
Though the army has been seen by analysts as a weaker force than in Egypt, it has made an effort to present itself as guiding the transition from above and protecting the secular state established by independence leader Habib Bourguiba.
"The national army is alert to protecting the Tunisian youth revolution, the revolution for freedom, dignity and social justice, and it will remain true to its promise," proclaims a slogan at an exhibit in central Tunis celebrating the army's role as protector of the state over the past 55 years.
HEMMING IN ENNAHDA
The work of organizing the mechanisms of transition is split between the interim cabinet and a body with the lofty title of "higher committee for realizing the aims of the revolution, political reform and democratic transition."
This committee has set up a separate body to organize the October vote and is preparing a political parties law that would introduce transparency and restrictions on funding.
This last is widely perceived to be targeting Ennahda which was able to gather support through Islamist networks while in years of exile in London and other Western capitals.
"The Left is trying to marginalize Ennahda. The idea is to hem them in with laws," said Salah Attia, a columnist at the daily Assabah.
If Ennahda dominates the constituent assembly it will find much of the country's political structure already in place.
The committee has also come up with the idea of a "republican charter" for all groups to adhere to, guaranteeing separation of religion and state and key women's rights that have established Tunisia as a citadel of Arab secularism.
Ennahda says it has no problem with such a charter but has countered that it should include the principle of no relations with Israel. It says these are tricks to delay the vote further.
"There is a fear now that the committee wants to create tension in order to delay the elections," said Noureddin Beheiri, Ennahda politburo member. "This would mean it is trying to sabotage the revolution not realize its aims."
He noted it has not yet drawn up a list of Ben Ali-era loyalists from his dissolved RCD party who would not be able to run in October. Without the list, the poll will not be possible.
Ennahda made a play for public opinion last month in pulling out of the committee, saying it was dominated by secularists such as Tajdeed party who refused to put issues to a vote.
Calls are also emerging for a simultaneous vote on October 23 for what kind of political system Tunisians want -- limiting the leg room of an elected constituent assembly where Islamists are likely to have more sway than they do now.
A group of around 40 small parties, also concerned about the strength of the major parties such as the leftist Democratic Progressive Party, are campaigning for this.
The question, as in Egypt, is where the balance of power should lie between parliament, government and president.
Political commentator Rachid Kchena said Ennahda was exploiting the situation well, raising fears of the "old guard" continuing to dominate.
"Whether you delay elections or not, it won't make much difference. The other parties will not have enough time to adapt," he said. "They are doing well because people see them having these differences with the committee. It is theater.
The security situation has suffered as the political vacuum continues.
Police say they clashed with nine militants described as al Qaeda in north Tunisia in May. Last month Islamists attacked a Tunis cinema for showing a film deemed blasphemous, tribal violence broke out in Metaoui and security forces clashed with police who were on strike in Gabes.
Though the film attack was by puritanical Islamists known as Salafists, some in the secular intelligentsia fear Ennahda is set to benefit by presenting itself as the moderate center.
Police have acted to stop Salafists staging protests in Tunis, yet more than 1,000 people from secular parties and rights groups managed to stage a demonstration against religious extremism on July 7.
"Every few weeks there is a security problem," said Attia. "The prime minister and the president are in their positions on an interim basis and there is no parliament. There is a lack of legitimacy."
In Egypt, the army has set the country on a different trajectory. Parliamentary elections are due in September after some changes to the constitution were approved by referendum. Presidential elections will follow after the new parliament engages in a wider review of the constitution.
But Tunisia was the country where the Arab uprisings began, and it has set the standard ever since, in the removal of ancien regime prime ministers and dissolving state security apparatus and ruling parties.
Tunisia has the chance to emerge as the first real democracy from the uprisings sweeping the region, Abassi said: "We have the momentum for it and we need to do it now."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)