Analysis: What role for the Islamists in the new Tunisia?

By Reuters Staff
January 21, 2011

tunisia flag

(Photo: Shadows of protesters on the Tunisian flag, in Tunis January 15, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

For years they were jailed or exiled. They were excluded from elections, banned from politics, and played no visible role in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. But in the brave new world of multi-party politics, moderate Islamists could attract more followers than their secular rivals like to admit.

And the downfall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state may leave Tunisia open to infiltration by extremists from neighboring Algeria, where war between authorities and Islamists has killed 200,000 people in the last two decades.

“The Islamist movement was the most oppressed of all the opposition movements under Ben Ali. Its followers are also much greater in number than those of the secular opposition,” said Salah Jourchi, a Tunisian expert on Islamic movements. “Its effect could be large.”

Secularism has been strictly enforced in Tunisia since before its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and long-time president, was a nationalist who considered Islam a threat to the state. Indeed, in 1987, when Ben Ali pushed aside Bourguiba, he briefly released Islamists from jail and allowed them to run in the 1989 elections. The results surprised and worried Ben Ali.

Ennahda, or Renaissance, Tunisia’s largest Islamist movement, officially won 17 percent of the vote, coming second to the ruling party. Ben Ali reversed his policy, banned Ennahda, jailed its followers and cracked down harshly on anyone showing any tendency toward Islamism. Ennahda’s leader Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi was exiled to London the same year.

Read the full analysis by Lin Noueihed here.

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