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As it prepares for its first General Election, Tunisia’s fledgling attempt toward democratic rule is being heavily threatened by an emboldened Islamist movement and an increased al Qaeda presence.
Tunisia’s Islamist movement is led by Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Ennahda — which had been banned by former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali since its 1981 inception — was legalized in March 2011 following Ben Ali’s ouster.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda has been viewed as having the organizational expertise and large membership to make it the odds on favorite in any parliamentarian election. With that in mind, Tunisia’s interim government recently moved its originally scheduled July Election to October in an effort to help the country’s disparate group of loosely organized, secularist parties better prevail against the more organized Ennahda.
Not surprisingly, that decision was denounced by Ennahda leaders but hailed by pro-democracy advocates, one who said that holding the July election would have entailed political “suicide” for anti-Islamist groups.
Yet, even though the victors in the October 2011 election will be charged with rewriting Tunisia’s Constitution, Tunisia’s interim leaders have been quick to downplay the adverse impact of an Islamist electoral victory.
While acknowledging that Ennahda could garner up to 20 percent of the vote, Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Mouldi Kefi said its effect would be minimal because it would still have to form a “coalition to work with the others parties and the other political forces.”
For his part, Ennahda’s leader and founder Rached Ghannouchi — who returned from exile upon the ouster of Ben Ali — has also tried to downplay his group’s radical Islamist intentions, saying his party is committed toward “implementing democracy and a parliamentary system.”
Yet, despite Ghannouchi’s statements, others believe that Ennahda is waging a public relations campaign to conceal its true intentions, which center on the creation of a Sharia-based Islamist state. Perhaps that view was best expressed by one Tunisian pro-democracy advocate who said of the Islamists, “They’re doing doublespeak, and everyone knows it.”
While Ennahda may be trying to hide its true aims, the same can’t be said for Al-tahrir, the Tunisian Salafist party. Although the party has yet to be declared legal by the Tunisian government, it nonetheless has been busily advocating for its agenda, which openly calls for a return to a caliph-run Islamic state.
A recent glimpse of Al-tahir’s grassroots campaign included its attack on the first meeting of Tunisia’s Democratic Modernist Pole, a coalition of Tunisia’s democratic and largely secularist political parties that includes the Al-Tajdid Movement, the Socialist Left Party, and the Republican Consensus.”
A second example of Al-tahir’s work came shortly afterwards when a group of armed Salafists protesting against ‘modernism” and “freedom” vandalized a movie screening of two films on secularism and religion, threatening its patrons with death. In a revealing glimpse into its own allegiances, the Ennahda party subsequently issued a statement absolving the Salafist attackers but finding instead that the theater goers were “being provocative.”
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