Tunisians wary as Islamists emerge from hiding

In the mornings, barber Fadhi Ayari blasts recordings of Koranic verses from his shop’s stereo. But it’s just a habit, he explains as he turns down the volume. He says he rarely ventures to the mosque just across the street.

He laughs uneasily at the prospect of the long-outlawed Islamist party Nahda, led by exiled sheik Rachid Ghannouchi, rising to prominence in the new Tunisia. Ghannouchi arrived home Sunday after 22 years in exile in Britain to cheers from more than 1,000 supporters gathered at Tunis’ international airport.

“If Sheik Rachid takes power, he will forbid beer and wine,” Ayari jokes.

“I like to pray, but he likes his beer,” says Mohamed Ali Losmar, a 40-year-old customer. “It’s Tunisia.”


By all accounts, Tunisia’s Islamists played little role in the uprising that this month toppled President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who presented himself to the West as a bulwark against religious extremism. Secular and leftist political groups, along with labor activists, played a far greater role than mosques in a country where Islam, though central to life here, is often less an ideology than a revered artifact, like the distinctive blue doors on white buildings that characterize the traditional architecture.

But the revolution in Tunisia has opened the way for long-suppressed Islamic groups such as Nahda, which means renaissance, to emerge from hiding and begin pursuing their political agendas with an eye on elections scheduled to be held within six months. Nahda’s leaders have quickly made their presence felt here.

Ghannouchi, 69, vowed in a recent television interview from London that he would prove to Tunisians that Nahda is a “moderate and democratic Islamic movement” that has helped Muslims embrace democracy. He praised the moderate Islamist ruling party in Turkey and its efforts to persuade the pious poor to embrace democracy while expanding the economy.

“Our ideology espouses pluralism and moderation,” Ghannouchi told the television channel Al Jazeera in the Jan. 22 interview.

His supporters are sensitive to the perception that they are extremists. “We are Muslims, we want to live in peace, but those who are against us and think we will become like [Osama] bin Laden are wrong,” says Amel Mahri, a teacher of French who greeted Ghannouchi at the airport.

But there are extreme groups waiting in the wings. The Tunisian Fighting Group, formed in 2000 and tied to Al Qaeda, was suspected of involvement in the 2001 assassination of anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan and a plot to attack U.S., Algerian and Tunisian embassies in Rome that year.

The Islamic Liberation Party and Salafist Jihad, both extremist groups that seek to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, held small demonstrations in Tunis after Ben Ali’s ouster.

“We say that only Islam will bring peace and tranquility and freedom to our people, not secularism, not dictatorship, not any other secular ideology supported by the West,” Osman Bakhach, a spokesman for the Islamic Liberation Party, told Iran’s state-owned Press TV on Jan. 19.


In rural areas and run-down suburbs of Tunis such as Cite Ibn Khaldun or Cite Solidarite, far from the upscale shops, modern high-rises and gracious belle epoque boulevards at the city center, hard-core Islamists are a presence, waiting for a leader.

“I wish for the Islamists to take power from Ben Ali,” says Fawzi, 53, who lives in Cite Solidarite. He declines to give his last name for fear of being identified as an Islamist. “God says in the Koran that Islam is the law of the land. One day all the people will know this.”

But if the ouster of the autocratic Ben Ali has launched a potential race to win the political allegiances of Tunisians, Islamists may be far behind other opposition members who are better organized, not in exile and maintain strong ties to the population.

Ibn Khaldun resident Hassan Taif, 47, spent six grueling years in prison for being a member of the Nahda party. But in prison and afterward, he drew closer to leftists, including Hamma Hammami, leader of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party, which though outlawed has long had a presence here instead of moving its base abroad.


“He went on a hunger strike,” Taif says. “He didn’t leave the country. I respect that.”

Among many Tunisians, political Islam is distasteful. At the mere mention of the possibility of Ghannouchi becoming president, Kamel Jouini, 28, blurts out in English: “No! No! No!”

His friend Ramzy Jridi, 27, chimes in as they sit in a cafe near the main train station of the town of Hamam Lif, southeast of the capital. “If religion comes, the country will be divided in two.”

“We are an Islamic country, but we’re different from others,” says Kareem Ferchichi, 35, another friend. “Sex, for example, is not a taboo here.”


Many say with relief that the Islamist movements are not as strong as they were in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Ben Ali began a widespread crackdown. The young people who led this month’s uprising are too conscientious to replace one dictatorship with another, they say. And the older generations that gave the revolution against Ben Ali their blessing did so in the name of freedom, not faith.

“We have those who make their prayers, but you don’t have to make your prayers,” says Saida bin Ayad, a 42-year-old homemaker in Cite Solidarite. “We want all types. We want freedom, not an Islamic country.”

Elections will decide how much strength the Islamists have. But unlike elections in other Arab countries, the upcoming vote won’t position a secular ruling party against a token opposition or Islamists. A wide variety of parties will compete, and Islamists will have no particular advantage.

“In completely fair, credible and transparent elections, would an Islamist candidate get some parliamentary seats?” says a Western diplomat in Tunis, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. “If he was charismatic and well-connected to the community, probably. I would argue that’s a healthy thing.”


A crucial factor in the elections will be those who manage to either provide economic solutions or convince the public they have answers.

“We want to play a positive role and gather the conditions for a democratic future,” says Lourimi Ajmi, a leading member of the Nahda party.

As a young Islamic activist discreetly distributing leaflets and holding underground meetings, Ajmi idolized Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who established the world’s first modern theocracy. But Ajmi now calls experiments in Islamic rule in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan dismal failures.

He says democracy and economic prosperity, not Sharia law, are the best ways to advance the Islamic agenda.


“We want to create a Tunisian model close to the social and educational aspirations of our country,” he says. “We believe that democracy is the shortest and most direct path to development. But our youth need a validation of their Islamic identity.”