The leader of the Islamist party that won Tunisia’s first free election appealed for calm in the town where the Arab Spring began, accusing forces linked to the ousted president of fanning violence there.
Troops fired into the air yesterday to disperse a crowd trying to attack government offices in Sidi Bouzid, where vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest in December last year and ignited revolts around the Arab world.
An-Nahda, which was banned for decades and its leaders forced to flee abroad, will lead Tunisia’s new government after an election victory likely to set a template for other Middle Eastern states rocked by uprisings this year.
An-Nahda has tried to reassure secularists nervous about the prospect of Islamist rule in one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries by saying it will respect women’s rights and not try to impose a Muslim moral code on society.
Speaking at his first news conference since the election, an-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi said the party would respect all Tunisia’s international treaties when it forms a new government.
He blamed the Sidi Bouzid clashes on forces connected with ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The unrest was not linked directly to the an-Nahda win, but to the fact that a party headed by a businessman popular in the town had been eliminated from the ballot over allegations of campaign finance violations.
Two witnesses in Sidi Bouzid said a large crowd had tried to attack the local government headquarters.
“The military are trying to disperse the people with shots in the air and tear gas,” one of the witnesses, Attia Athmouni, said by telephone.
The witnesses said shops and schools were shut and a security forces helicopter was hovering overhead.
Late on Thursday, after election officials announced it would cancel several seats won by the Popular List party, a crowd in Sidi Bouzid set fire to an an-Nahda office and the office of the local mayor.
A Tunisian Interior Ministry source said a night curfew would be imposed in the town from 7pm until 5am.
After his party’s victory was confirmed, Ghannouchi paid tribute to the town’s role in Tunisia’s revolution in January, which forced Ben Ali to flee the country.
“We salute Sidi Bouzid and its sons who launched the spark and we hope that God will have made Mohammed Bouazizi a martyr,” said the soft-spoken Islamic scholar, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain. “We will continue this revolution to realize its aims of a Tunisia that is free, independent, developing and prosperous, in which the rights of God, the Prophet, women, men, the religious and the non-religious are assured because Tunisia is for everyone.”
Announcing the results, election commission members said an-Nahda had won 90 seats in the 217-seat assembly, which will draft a new constitution, form an interim government and schedule new elections, probably for early 2013.
The Islamists’ nearest rival, the secularist Congress for the Republic, won 30 seats, the commission members told a packed hall in the capital, ending a four-day wait since Sunday’s poll for the painstaking count to be completed.
An-Nahda fell short of an absolute majority in the new assembly. It is expected to form a government with two of the secularist runners-up.
An-Nahda officials said coalition talks had begun and the economy would take priority in negotiations.