Tunisia Undercuts Militants With Reforms for the Poor

Tunisia's government has been more successful than any other North African government in silencing its militant Islamic opposition.

By using its highly repressive security apparatus against opposition parties, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) has succeeded in disbanding the once-powerful Islamist Al-Nahda movement and all but immobilizing its supporters.

But it hasn't succeeded in quelling Islamist fervor entirely. The six-year campaign against the opposition - which has been condemned by Amnesty International for its use of torture and detention without trial - has made it difficult to ascertain the strength of support for Al-Nahda today. But many say support for an Islamic government still runs high in this mostly Muslim nation of 7.5 million people.

Dual approach

In recent years, the RCD has adopted a dual approach: repressive tactics along with Western-style social and economic reforms to respond to issues of social deprivation raised by the Islamist party.

These efforts have been aimed at stealing Al-Nahda's thunder as well as easing the plight of Tunisia's poor.

"The reforms were against the Islamists, but by accident," says Hamadi ben Jaballah an official in Tunisia's Education Ministry who spearheaded education reforms.

The government launched an infrastructure-improvement program to build schools, provide electricity and running water to isolated villages, and fund health centers.

State control of key religious institutions has dominated government reform strategies, subjecting Islamic leaders who support secular government to charges of apostasy by the militants. Tunisia's modernization program has also encouraged women to play a more active role in the religious hierarchy, and even to become prayer leaders. In a 1995 report, Amnesty International said wives of Al-Nahda supporters have also been warned by officials not to wear headscarves, which the government regards as a sign of sympathy with the militants.

Mr. ben Jaballah admits the government is trying to fight popular conservatism - to limited effect. "The government and politicians have been victorious over the [Islamist] currents in society," he says. "Tunisia has never been populist - that is to say, the people's will is not followed. If you take the [reforms] that have been introduced, there is always ... resistance. That is the Islamist phenomenon."

1987 as turning point

Al-Nahda was banned along with other opposition parties, including Tunisia's Communist Party, in 1987 after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali took power. Mr. Ben Ali was serving as interior minister when he was named president after incumbent Habib Bourguiba was declared unfit to rule. Ben Ali was reelected in 1994.

In December 1990 the Tunisian government claimed to have uncovered an Islamist plot to seize power. Some 8,000 Islamists were imprisoned, 200 cases of torture were identified by Amnesty International, and the rapid dismemberment of Al-Nahda began. Tunisia was the first of the North African nations to crack down on the Islamists.

If reforms have turned the tide of public opinion in favor of the RCD, it doesn't show. The government still maintains a tight grip on potential sources of support for the Islamists, and its 70,000-member security force can comb the countryside. Most of Al-Nahda's leaders are in exile or under house arrest, and their spouses and friends are often detained, according to Amnesty.

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