Tunisians protesting outside headquarters of electoral body
The euphoria that marked Tunisia's first-ever democratic elections Sunday has swiftly switched to anxiety among liberals and women shocked by an Islamist party triumph and the collapse of the left.
"There is general desolation and frustration," Faouzia Hamila, a public servant, said Wednesday of the Ennahda Islamist party's commanding lead, yet to be confirmed by official results.
"My colleagues and I are so shocked that nobody managed to do their work today!" she said.
Banned under the regime of ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Ennahda took a commanding lead in provisional tallies of the Arab Spring's first elections.
Ennahda, which failed to achieve an outright majority and quickly set about negotiations for a new government, says it models itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country which, like Tunisia to date, is a secular state.
But its critics accuse the party of being moderate in public and radical in the mosques, expressing particular concern over its commitment to retain Tunisian women's status as the most liberated in the Arab world.
"The statements of the Ennahda leaders seeking to assure us of their commitment to respecting women's rights, have not convinced us," said Hamila, 58.
Shortly after the historic vote, Ennahda sought to reassure women that it will not touch their rights.
"We respect the rights of women ... and equality between Tunisians whatever their religion, their gender or their social status," executive party member Nourreddine Bhiri said.
Ryadh Ben Fadhel, a coordinator of the Modernist Democratic Pole (PDM) which groups together several liberal, leftist parties, said: "There is a lot of bitterness in the democratic camp" after the polls.
"The youth and women were at the heart of our movement and of its programme. We lost," he said.
But Juneidi Abdeljawad, a leader of the leftist Ettajdid party that is the driving force in the PDM, said the result, though disappointing, did not represent defeat.
"We won the battle for parity by putting women at the head of all our (electoral candidates') lists. It is an achievement of the revolution and we will continue fighting for it to be respected in all future elected assemblies."
Twenty-six-year-old Ines, a French teacher, said on the streets of Tunis that she felt "terrorised and overwhelmed by the idea of being commanded by these charlatans ... with their long beards", who she said formed a strong presence in her suburb of El Mourouj in the south of the capital.
"It is a day of mourning not only for women but for all democrats," added a female university professor who did not want to give her name.
Raoudha Talbi, a physical therapist who said she was not interested in politics, said she was concerned by the way conservative Tunisian Muslim men treated women on a daily basis.
"They are arrogant, they give me strange looks and intimidate women on public transport, on the streets, or driving their cars," she said.
"What happens in everyday life is more serious than the presence of Islamists in the government."
As if in shocked silence, Tunisia's many militant feminist associations have yet to issue any official reaction to the Islamist political victory.
Approached for comment, a member of the Association of Democratic Women, Zeineb Farhat, declared herself "startled" by the gains of Ennahda, "these people who are in their essence opposed to principles of equality."
Referring to "the arrogance and the verbal violence" with which young Ennahda militants celebrated their victory in Tunis on Tuesday, she urged Tunisian women to "take up martial arts and reconquer the public spaces and cafeteria terraces."
The group had allegedly told women nearby to "go home, we have won".
For her part, rights defender Balkis Mechri said she feared "a reversal of fortunes for the female condition."
Hamila said Ben Ali's decades-long campaign against Islamists had helped drive people into the arms of Ennahda.
"The verdict is the result of long years of despotism, of people seeking to break with the system," she said.
Added psychologist Naima Ben Youssef: "We are living a moment of shock. It is difficult to rationalise the sadness on one hand with the euphoria on the other."