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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.

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January 19, 2011 3:33 by



The absence of Islamist slogans from Tunisia’s pro-democracy revolt punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power.

Ousted strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali spent much of his 23-year rule crushing Islamist opposition groups who opposed his government’s brand of strict secularism: after Sept. 11 2001, he was an enthusiastic backer of Washington’s “war on terror”.

But the evidence of the past week is that the protest slogans that rang out before his fall demanded not an imposition of Islamic sharia law but fair elections and free speech.

“The lesson from what’s happening in Tunisia is that (Arab leaders) won’t be able to hide any more behind the Islamist threat argument,” said Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa specialist at social sciences school EHESS in Paris.

It remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s enfeebled Islamists will be able to win significant support in the event that they are unbanned and allowed to contest planned free elections. But so far most complaints levelled at a new interim government set up after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia have focused not on a lack of Islamists but on too many faces from the old regime.

Islamists were “not able to carry the concerns and longings of the vast majority of Tunisian people, especially the middle class which has chosen freedom and justice,” said Egyptian political analyst Nabil Adbel Fatah.

It looks embarrassing for the Western governments that spent decades justifying their support for Ben Ali — and other secular-minded Arab world strongmen — by suggesting the alternative was Iran-style Islamic revolution.

From Syria to Egypt and Algeria, governments have used the Islamist peril to justify draconian security policies and emergency laws that gnawed at civil liberties and allowed broad powers of search, arrest and imprisonment without trial.

Civil liberties campaigners have long said the Islamist threat is a thin pretext to destroy not just the Islamists but all challenges to the grip of ruling elites.

“We’ve seen this in Egypt, where the regime makes it impossible for secular political opposition forces to get anywhere in order to tell the West it’s the Islamists or us,” said North Africa expert Hugh Roberts.

Analysts said Arab rulers might respond by backtracking on anti-Islamist rhetoric and warning instead of the danger of social chaos caused by high unemployment.



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