Fears of Islamist revival as Tunisian PM falters

Even as Tunisians celebrate the fall of totalitarianism after 23 years, for many there is a shadow looming over their new-found freedom – the apprehension of rising religious fundamentalism and its effect on human rights.

Yesterday saw the first Friday prayers in Tunis since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali last week.

As worshippers left their prayers, outside some of the mosques were groups of men espousing conservative Islam, distributing leaflets warning against unbelievers.

With Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi yesterday promising to quit politics after fresh elections, citizens are pleased at the prospect of a government with "clean hands" but are unsure whose hands they will be.

The Ben Ali regime presented itself as a bulwark against terrorism, making Muslim fundamentalists the target of its draconian laws. But now the religious parties say that they, too, should be allowed to play a part in the new political landscape that has emerged since the collapse last week of Mr Ben Ali's rule.

Ennahda, or "Awakening", an Islamist movement, was banned under Mr Ben Ali with its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (unrelated to the current Prime Minister), exiled in London. Now, as its members take part in daily protests in the centre of Tunis, the party is seeking to be legalised.

Hamida Raidi, who was involved in a heated debate during a march after speaking out against political Islam, said: "We don't want to exchange one repressive government for another. We have seen what Islamist parties do when they start influencing politics. This will be bad for Tunisia and especially bad for women."

Hamid Jebali, a senior Ennahda official, blames a variety of people, from secularists with agendas in Tunisia to the Western media, for presenting a false image of Islamists. "It is the newspapers and television in Europe and America who are trying to frighten people by saying that 'the Islamists are rising'," he said. "But we are not the Taliban, or al-Qa'ida or Ahmadinejad. We shall submit to the vote of the people when the time comes."

Ennahda believes that political momentum is on its side. Rachid Ghannouchi said he will return to his homeland, after two decades, at the opportune moment while the movement's deputy leader, Ali Laraidh, has held talks with the Prime Minister over the possibility of being part of a government of national unity.

"To do that, we need to have our party legalised," said Mr Laraidh, who was imprisoned for 14 years under the old regime for "plotting against the state".

The belief that Islam should play a part in shaping the new political landscape has some unexpected adherents in Tunisian society. Sahar Ben Younis, 20, a student dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, said: "We are not saying that there should be things like burkas here. But Ben Ali put a lot of people who held the true values of Islam in prison and we need people like them in politics."

However, Samir al-Taibi, a member of the opposition PDP party and a trade union activist, urged caution: "Ennahda say they are not extremist, they say that they believe in democracy and tolerance. Well, let us seen their manifesto, let us see how they will react if someone criticises fundamentalist Islam. We would also like to see their positions on armed struggle and Islam. There are a lot of questions to be answered."

Those espousing armed struggle have urged Tunisians not to be "seduced by democracy". Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb said this week: "This is the time to go to training camps and wage the decisive battle against the Jews, the Crusaders and their agents."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links