What role for the Islamists?
With the Islamists preparing to join the country's political process, is there room for them in the new Tunisia, asks Mourad Teyeb in Tunis
The leader of the Tunisian Islamist Party Ennahda, Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, announced on 15 January that he intended to end his 20-year London exile as soon as a general amnesty was proclaimed in Tunisia and to return to the country and join the political process.
His announcement resulted in various reactions from Tunisians and the country's various political and ideological factions, which do not have the same point of view on the importance the Islamists may have in the new Tunisia's society and political life.
Islamism in Tunisia largely means the Ennahda Party, formerly called the Movement of the Islamic Tendency, which, founded in 1981, took on its new name in 1987 in the early days of the rule of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali in order to gain legal recognition.
Ennahda candidates stood in the April 1989 parliamentary elections as independents, and, despite widespread fraud, still won 15 per cent of the votes. However, Bin Ali used these elections to identify Party members and supporters, later imprisoning and persecuting tens of thousands of them, together with members of their families.
Between 1990 and 1993, some 30,000 Ennahda Party members, together with members of its student union branch, UGTE, were arrested, with hundreds of others fleeing the country.
The victory of the FIS, Algeria's largest Islamist party, in the neighbouring country's parliamentary elections, together with a fear of what many at the time saw as radical Islamism, were the excuses Bin Ali used to justify his repression of Ennahda and to convince the West that he was carrying out a just struggle against it.
Some observers believe that this ousting of Ennahda from the country's public and political life weakened and disorganised the Tunisian Islamist movement, with others emphasising that the Party has yet to recover from the repression.
During the 1990s, the largest of Tunisia's opposition parties backed Ennahda's suppression by the regime. "Between Bin Ali and Ennahda, they would choose Bin Ali," said one Western diplomat.
Moncef Marzouki, the founder and president of the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), banned under Bin Ali, was one of the few opposition leaders to reject this suppression. Restrictions on human and political rights are never acceptable, he has said.
Moreover, when the Tunisian political class began to understand that Bin Ali would not accept any form of true opposition, or the least signs of freedom and democracy, the country's secular opposition accepted to deal with Ennahda.
When a number of Islamists were freed in 2006, some Ennahda leaders reassured their so- called "democratic left-wing" partners that "no secret deal" had been made with Bin Ali in return for their liberation.
Bin Ali's repression, the Algerian experience and the negative image left by the international war on Al-Qaeda have all weakened the leaders of the Tunisian Islamist trend and raised suspicions among Tunisians.
Ennahda's internal frictions, the failure of their first experience as a legal political party and the repercussions of the international war on terrorism all seem to have taken Tunisia's Islamists "further to the left", according to certain experts.
Tunisian Internet activist Amira Yahiaoui has written that because of the concessions he has made on secularism, Rashed Al-Ghanoushi was once described by Hizbullah TV channel Al-Manar as "a communist."
French Maghreb scholar Pierre Vermeren also thinks that Tunisian society remains "deeply Islamist sensitive," though in his view, "moralising religious discourse is easy to spread in Maghreb societies because of the rejection of corruption and other practices."
In his book Maghreb: la démocratie impossible? Vermeren concludes that "the ground is quite fertile" for Islamism to spread in the country's marginalised middle and lower classes.
Religious practices, such as the wearing of the veil by women or the attendance of Friday prayers, are more widespread in Tunisia today than they were in the early 1990s. "Banned things are always sweeter," says the popular Tunisian proverb.
Nobody can be sure whether the Islamists played a role in the recent events that led to ousting Ben Ali and his family.
However, that is only true for the Islamists as a political entity: the presence of Islamists and Ennahda sympathisers in the crowds that brought down the former regime was undeniable, obvious from the veiled women, bearded men, and slogans used among the crowds.
Moreover, after long years of seclusion, some eminent Islamist personalities have recently made an appearance in public.
Hamadi Jebali, the party's vice-president, met Prime Minister Mohamed Al-Ghanoushi recently, while Ali Laaraiedh and Abdel-Karim Harouni have appeared on various Arab satellite TV channels. Sadok Chourou, Ennahda's spokesperson, even led a demonstration in Tunis.
However, what still remains uncertain is how much weight Ennahda will have in the parliamentary and presidential elections that are now expected in Tunisia.
"Tunisia has witnessed the revolution of a people who have called for social and political rights," Rashed Al-Ghanoushi told the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera. "We [Ennahda] are not seeking to embrace this popular movement, but we are keen to talk about future developments within the political and the civil society of the country."
According to the Western countries that supported the former regime of Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, the latter succeeded in containing the growth of Islamism in Tunisia and its propagation from the country's neighbours.
"Bin Ali has played a major role in our war on terrorism and in the fight against the rise of fundamentalist trends," said French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie before Bin Ali's fall. The former Tunisian president's actions against the Islamists were necessary "to protect Europeans", she said.
Many Western experts and politicians have now changed their minds, blaming Western backing for Bin Ali's regime as being behind the problems that led to recent developments.
Many Europeans now believe that countries that succeed in integrating Islam into the democratic process are those where elections are the likeliest to produce political harmony and stability.
Many scholars also believe that the integration of Islamist parties into the political arena can only be an asset in the struggle against terrorist groups.
Such inclusion can help combat terrorism more efficiently, help governments to show that their war on terrorism is not anti-Islam, and help integrate populations into the legal political arena.
On 14 January, Rashed Al-Ghanoushi told France 24 that he wanted "to work with" the country's political forces and civil society "in order to build up a state of law."
As soon as an amnesty is issued in the new Tunisia, Ennahda will ask for legal recognition. While its leaders have declared that the party will not be putting forward a candidate in the Tunisian presidential elections, it will present candidates in the parliamentary elections expected in two months' time.
This means that some agreement will have to be found for Ennahda's legal status, since the Tunisian constitution does not currently allow the formation of parties on a religious basis.