(Photo: Tunisian protester with political demands on a banner that reads
“No to a government born of corruption” “Ben Ali is in Saudi Arabia and the government is the same (hasn’t changed)” in Arabic and “RCD, clear out!” in French. The RCD is the party of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In Tunis January 18, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)
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.