Fall of secular regime in Tunisia paves way for Islamic parties Jihadwatch
REUTERS - For years they were jailed or exiled. They were excluded from elections, banned from politics, and played no visible role in Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. But in the brave new world of multi-party politics, moderate Islamists could attract more followers than their secular rivals like to admit.
And the downfall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's police state may leave Tunisia open to infiltration by extremists from neighbouring Algeria, where war between authorities and Islamists has killed 200,000 people in the last two decades.
"The Islamist movement was the most oppressed of all the opposition movements under Ben Ali. Its followers are also much greater in number than those of the secular opposition," said Salah Jourchi, a Tunisian expert on Islamic movements.
'Its effect could be large'
Secularism has been strictly enforced in Tunisia since before its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and long-time president, was a nationalist who considered Islam a threat to the state.
Indeed, in 1987, when Ben Ali pushed aside Bourguiba, he briefly released Islamists from jail and allowed them to run in the 1989 elections. The results surprised and worried Ben Ali.
Ennahda, or Renaissance, Tunisia's largest Islamist movement, officially won 17 percent of the vote, coming second to the ruling party.
Jourchi said there was widespread electoral fraud and the real figure could have been closer to 30-35 percent. That compared with a combined total of three percent for all the secular opposition parties that ran in the same elections.
Ben Ali reversed his policy, banned Ennahda, jailed its followers and cracked down harshly on anyone showing any tendency towards Islamism. Ennahda's leader Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi was exiled to London the same year.
Ghannouchi, who declared his desire to return to Tunisia soon after Ben Ali's ouster, has yet to set a date.
But now that Tunisia's interim government has agreed an amnesty law that allows banned parties and frees political prisoners, Ghannouchi could return any day.
Husain Jazeery, an Ennahda spokesman exiled in Paris, said the movement would take part in parliamentary elections expected to be held in the next six months but would field no candidate for the presidency because "we do not want to rule the country".
"We are a party that does not want to rule but wants to take part alongside all the other groups and to do so responsibly," he said by telephone.
"Any exclusion of Ennahda would be a return to the old regime and that would be impossible in the current situation ... regardless of internal or external pressures."
Despite the state's crackdown on Ennahda, the movement is considered moderate and could draw widespread support....
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