Secular Tunisia may face a new, younger Islamist challenge

Analysts say a growing number of young fundamentalists are increasingly restless in a country that bans all religious parties.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While a potent Islamic movement once challenged this country's ruling elite, today political Islam has all but vanished here. This kind of dissent has been quashed to near extinction.

But even though the more popular religious parties have vanished after more than 20 years of facing harsh government crackdowns, a new wave of resistance appears to be taking shape.

It is bubbling up in universities and among young people who may again attempt to challenge Tunisia's brand of enforced secularism and agitate for greater political openness.

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Some analysts and a Tunisian lawyer who defends many young Tunisian men charged with plotting attacks on the government say cutting off all political avenues is leading to the radicalization of some young people at a time when the region is particularly charged with anger over US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"At the beginning the system [tried] to finish all Islamist movements. Despite everything the government is doing, it is increasing and it became more popular among students, good students," says Abdel Raouf al-Ayadi, a lawyer in Tunis.

He says the young men are growing more conservative and some are following the fundamentalist Salafist ideology that some militant groups have also adopted.

"Here the government is thinking [militants] are doing [violent] things because they don't have enough money to live. But the real reason is the occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia. It's political, not economic at all," says Mr. Ayadi.

Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who helped author a report on Islamist movements in the Arab world, said the continued lack of political space locked mainstream political Islamists in a confrontational position with the government and "you force elements of their constituencies to consider other strategies," says Mr. Hamzawy.

Tunisia has indeed solved what many of its Arab neighbors consider one of the region's greatest threats: the challenge presented by political Islam. While Egypt and Morocco accord opposition groups some space, however narrow or government-controlled, Tunisia has banned all Islamic parties.

More than 20 years ago, Abdullah Zouari supported the Islamist political party an-Nahda, which hoped to bring Islamic sharia law to Tunisia by winning elections.

"Our ideas were to talk about distributing the wealth of the country and," says Mr. Zouari, pulling out a book on the fundamentalist an-Nahda, pointing to a page listing their goals. The list includes transparency, modernizing Islam, and rebuilding an Islamic identity and civilization in Tunisia and the world.

In 1989, an-Nahda candidates made a strong showing in national elections. Soon after, the group was blamed for clashes with security forces, sporadic violence against government institutions, and plotting violent overthrow of the government. The government arrested tens of thousands of people through 1992 on charges of belonging to an-Nahda or plotting attacks in Tunisia.

"The regime depicted an-Nahda as being this brutal, Islamist force of crazies in order to get support of a pretty progressive middle class against it," says Clement Henry, a professor of political science and political economy at the University of Texas who says he has been banned from Tunisia for writing a critical article of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

"Many people had joined an-Nahda as an alternative to the regime as it became increasingly repressive," he said.

Tunisia's approach to Islamists raises questions for governments and political Islam that are echoed across the rest of North Africa. "Is it able to endorse secular regulations and rules of law? Is the secular leadership homogenous enough and strong to resist to an Islamic uprising? Would it be an invitation to danger or would it be a credible and reliable step toward a liberal system? These questions are on the spot and in debate," wrote Hamadi Redissi, University of Tunis political science professor, in an e-mailed response to questions.

The emerging group of young Islamists has indeed learned from their predecessors. For one, their ambitions are far humbler.

"I'm not asking to be president or anything. I just ask to [practice] my Islamic beliefs, to have a beard, and pray [so] I would satisfy my god," says Omar Rached.

Mr. Rached is part of a group the government sentenced in 2004 to 19 years in prison on charges of downloading instructions on bombmaking and waging armed jihad from the Internet. Human rights groups said the trials were unfair. The six young men in jail were freed in 2006.

The government says it still believes the men are dangerous and that terrorism is a lurking threat, warranting its tactics, which many considered heavy-handed. Indeed, in December and January 2008, shootouts outside Tunis between government forces and militants jarred the normally quiet country.

The government said they were "terrorists" and made sweeping arrests in the aftermath. An anonymous Tunisian official said one of the six men freed in 2006 ended up fighting with the militant Islamist Islamic Courts movement that briefly took power in Somalia last year.

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