TUNIS – Like it or not, this is the year of the Islamist.
Fourteen months after popular uprisings toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist political parties – religiously conservative groups that oppose the use of violence – have swept interim elections, started rewriting constitutions and become the odds-on favorites to win general elections.
Western hopes that more liberal parties would fare well have been dashed. Secular Arab groups are divided, perceived as elitist or enjoy tepid popular support.
But instead of the political process moving forward, a toxic political dynamic is emerging. Aggressive tactics by hardline Muslims generally known as Salafists are sowing division. Moderate Islamists are moving cautiously, speaking vaguely and trying to hold their diverse political parties together. And some Arab liberals are painting dark conspiracy theories.
Ahmed Ounaies, a pro-Western Tunisian politician who briefly served as foreign minister in the country’s post-revolutionary government, said that he no long trusted Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party. Echoing other secular Tunisians, he said some purportedly moderate Muslim leaders are, in fact, aligned with hardliners.
“We believe that Mr. Ghannouchi is a Salafist,” Ouanies said in an interview. “He is a real supporter of those groups.”