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Tunisia revolt makes Islamist threat ring hollow

Tunisia revolt makes Islamist threat ring hollow

Though Arab governments have used the Islamist peril to justify draconian security policies and emergency laws that gnawed at civil liberties, the events in Tunisia may prove to be a turning point.

January 19, 2011 3:33 by


Political Islam does seem uniquely weak in Tunisia — a relatively wealthy country with a strong education system and deep ties to secular France — compared to its Arab neighbours.

Leaders of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) movement have said they want to cooperate with the interim government, not overthrow the country’s secular institutions.

Tunisian authorities outlawed Ennahda in the early 1990s, after accusing it of a violent plot to overthrow secular rule. Hundreds of Ennahda supporters were put on trial in Tunisia in the 1990s while others fled to Europe.

The movement, whose exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi has said he plans to return, denies it seeks violence. Its thinking is seen by some analysts as in tune with the moderate Islamist-rooted AK party that came to power in Turkey in 2002.

In a bid to expoit Tunisia’s unrest, the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb called on Tunisian youth to join its fighters for training in Algeria.

But analysts say the group has negligible support, even in Algeria. Al Qaeda analyst Camille Tawil said that while small numbers of angry young Tunisians might eventually be tempted, it was clear demonstrators were ordinary people protesting against despotism and the al Qaeda appeal would have no impact.

Across the region, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have bolstered the message propagated by religious radicals that the West is waging a war on Muslims.

In reaction, Arab societies have become more outwardly pious, with more women wearing veils, more men wearing beards and more people attending mosques.

Even in Tunisia, mosques became spaces for political protest and some young Tunisians adopted a language of revolt that took a cue from Salafist groups and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“There has been growth in Tunisia of what could be called manifestations of popular piety,” said Michael Willis of Oxford University. “But many Tunisians see that as a protest against the regime, as Ben Ali spoke against headscarves.”

“The Islamist opposition is not what it was 20 years ago,” said Boubekeur. “Many young people don’t even know who Rached Ghannouchi is.”

Elsewhere in the Arab world, moderate Islamists have become part of the political landscape, all touting the values of freedom and democracy, at least in public.

“We hope (Tunisia’s) popular intifada will be crowned by a pluralistic democratic regime that guarantees everyone their rights,” Sheikh Hamsour Mansour, head of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, told Reuters.

Commenting on Tunisia, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) said “achieving stability and prosperity is tied to respecting the democratic option and the people’s will”.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the overthrow of an autocrat in Tunisia and said many Tunisian problems were also true of Egypt.

The group, which is the country’s biggest opposition force and could rally thousands of supporters according to some analysts, refuses to confront the state on the streets.

(By Tom Pfeiffer. Additional reporting by Sarah Mikhail in Cairo, Zakia Abdennebi in Rabat and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by William Maclean)

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