As Egyptians went to the polls this week, a Tunisian political leader was in Washington with a useful reminder: Islamic-oriented parties are not necessarily the enemy of democracy.

Tunisia, you may recall, is where the Arab Spring began, when a hapless fruit peddler, driven to his wit’s end by corruption and official harassment, set himself on fire.

That sparked a popular uprising, which sent Tunisia’s dictator fleeing, emboldened protesters from Libya to Egypt to Yemen to Syria, and put Tunisia itself — a North African nation of about 10 million people — on the path to democracy.

In October, Tunisians held a successful election, in which the Islamist party Ennahda won the leading share of the popular vote and of seats in the assembly that will appoint a government and draw up a constitution. The head of that party, Rashid Ghannouchi, has been in Washington this week. His chief message, as he said during a visit to The Washington Post, is that “religion is not in contradiction with democracy and not in contradiction with human rights and justice.”

Ennahda has formed a coalition with nonreligious parties. It put many women on its slate of candidates. It has committed to a Tunisia in which men and women, believers and nonbelievers, will be welcome to participate.

An auspicious start does not guarantee that religious parties will remain faithful to democracy over time.

There are many ways the Arab Awakening might veer off track, and religion-inspired constriction of freedom is one. In any true Arab democracy, Islamist parties will win a lot of votes.

As long as they are willing to play by the rules, those parties should not be treated as a specter to be feared.