Fears of Islamism as Tunisians Celebrate Change

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Hundreds of Tunisians pressed shoulder to shoulder in the Arfa mosque yesterday, as they have for Friday prayers year after year. The overflow crowd in this working-class Tunis neighborhood, called Tahrir, eventually spilled into the courtyard and even into the street, directly beneath the ornately carved green-and-white minaret. The imam of the mosque began with a standard prayer before starting his khotba, or sermon, which was hardly the usual Friday fare. He talked about the corruption and abuses of the former regime as the attendees listened, rapt. It was the first time they were hearing the imam speak openly. "[Ben Ali] destroyed many people," the imam said. "His wife [Leila Trabelsi] was also involved." He went on to strike a cautionary note. "Freedom isn't looting and sacking. We have to respect each other and help each other."

In a week of dizzying change, one of the most significant developments in Tunisia has been the new freedom for religious Tunisians to preach and worship openly. "We can hardly believe we're free," says Abdul Wahab Haj Omar, the imam of the Arfa mosque, with a broad smile. "This is more than a dream." But the newfound freedom is starting to worry many liberal, secular Tunisians. They point out that their country has some of the most progressive laws in the region: women are given nearly equal rights in courts overseeing family disputes, free contraception is available, and abortion is legal. The fear is that conservative Islamists will rise in the political arena and try to impose restrictions on all Tunisians. Haj Omar, the mosque imam, says he envisions a future government similar to that in Turkey, where Islamists have done well in elections but haven't pushed through any radical social changes. "Tunisians are religious people, but at the same time they're moderate people," says a Western diplomat in Tunis, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted Tunisian president, long played on this fear of religious extremism to rally support from Western governments. He was seen as a key secular ally in the fight against terrorism and presented a simple choice to his foreign allies: it's me or Al Qaeda. During his 23 years in office, Ben Ali cracked down hard on Islamists. Thousands were jailed and tortured. Many others simply fled the country. Islamic schools were shut down, and the hijab was periodically outlawed. Mosque sermons were censored, and informants sat in on prayers. After a sermon yesterday at the Ahad mosque in the working-class Ettadhamen neighborhood of Tunis, Yaqoub Habib, a burly 50-year-old merchant wearing a traditional robe and red fez, began telling me about his elation at the fall of the regime. A bearded man nearby told him to watch what he was saying. Habib lost it. "Shut up! Let us talk!" he shouted, waving his index finger angrily. "This man was one of them. He wore this beard, but he was passing information to the government." The alleged informant quickly disappeared in the crowd.

Because of Ben Ali's zeal in targeting Islamists, no one has a clear idea how much support they could muster politically. The largest Islamist party, An Nahda, which means "renaissance" or "reawakening" in Arabic, ran in the 1989 elections and got some 20 percent of the vote. Could the party rally even more support now? "Sometimes Islamist parties do better when the choice is: you can vote for autocratic X or [party] Y," says the Western diplomat. "A lot of people are going to vote for Y. Not necessarily because they agree with an Islamist platform, but because they're voting against X."

An Nahda has been operating underground for years, and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has been living in exile in Europe since the early 1990s. As a result, many younger Tunisians know nothing about the party. Ghannouchi has said he will soon leave England to return to Tunisia. That has invited comparisons to Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was living in exile in France when the Islamic revolution kicked off in his home country in 1979. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Ghannouchi downplayed the comparison. "Some are presenting me as a Khomeini who will return to Tunisia," he said. "I am no Khomeini."

Regardless, supporters of An Nahda are making themselves heard on the streets of Tunis. On Tuesday morning a handful of young men claiming to support An Nahda showed up outside the offices of the Progressive Democratic Party, the country's largest legal opposition group, shouting, "Resign! Resign!" They had come to protest the PDP's decision to participate in an interim government, announced the day before, which included many members of the previous regime. When the PDP's leader, Najib Chebbi, showed up at the office, the young men swarmed around him and taunted him with slogans. Policemen shot tear gas into the street soon after, to disperse the gathering crowd. It was hard to miss the irony that the police, who only days before were protecting the Ben Ali regime, were now protecting the former opposition.

Even though the numbers seem relatively small, the presence of Islamists among the protesters is a cause of concern for many secular Tunisians. They fear that religious conservatives are better organized and can rally political support through mosques. "We've been frightened by the former government about this," says Shiraz Sayah, the chief strategic officer of an agricultural-development company. "Whether [Islamists] are really there as a big group, we don't know."