Islamists emerge as powerful force in the new Tunisia

February 2, 2011
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(Supporters welcome home Rachid Ghannouchi at the airport in Tunis January 30, 2011. The sign reads: "No fear of Islam"/Louafi Larbi)

They are at pains to assure Tunisians this is no Islamic revolution. They do not seek the presidency. They will run alongside other groups in the democracy that replaces Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali’s police state.

Tunisia’s main Islamist group may not have played any role in the revolution that toppled Ben Ali after 23 years, but any doubt that Ennahda would emerge as one of the largest players was dispelled with the return of its leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

Thousands thronged Tunis airport to see Ghannouchi, dwarfing any reception laid on for other exiles and alarming those Tunisians who want to keep Islam separate from the state in this French ex-colony used to decades of officially imposed secularism. They will be watching closely in the coming months to see if Ennahda’s actions match the moderation of its rhetoric.

“Tunisia will not change to adapt itself to the Islamists and their ideas. The Islamists must adapt to modern Tunisia,” said Neji Bghouri, head of the journalists union. “There is a trend in Ennahda that began to adjust to this reality but there are those who are more extreme. This is an issue of great sensitivity among Tunisia’s political elite.”

Despite a crackdown that saw thousands of their members jailed or exiled from the 1990s, Ennahda’s supporters already appear to be more organised than any other political groups.

Read the full analysis by Lin Noueihed here.
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