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Tunisian Tipping Point?

Are Tunisia’s governing majority wolves in sheep’s clothing? Mr. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda which triumphed in recent elections, had several taped conversations leaked where he appears to discuss alcohol bans and the imposition of religious law as a means to gradually Islamizing Tunisian society. Ennahda spokesmen have claimed the quotes were deliberately taken out of context:

He said the video was an effort by Ghannouchi at the time to encourage the Salafis – ultraconservative Muslims who insist on the immediate imposition of Islamic law – to take a gradual approach and work within the system to advance their beliefs rather than through violence.

“We have to make sure that the whole Salafi trend isn’t pushed into the lap of al-Qaida. We have to isolate the violent elements,” he added. “He is trying to convince them that the soft approach, the moderate approach, is the best one.”

It’s not clear who leaked the tapes. Some suspect the divided secularist bloc, long determined to discredit Ennahda. Leaking ominously edited conversations of Islamist opposition leaders was Ben Ali’s favorite tactic to rally public opinion behind his authoritarian rule. Others claim it was the Salafis themselves—after all, they were privy to the conversations—since this could destabilize Tunisian politics and give them an opening to exploit.

The Arab Spring has so far borne some very unappetizing fruit in many countries. Tunisia is one of the places where the prospects for establishing a relatively open and pluralistic political system seem real. But the looting and burning of the American embassy in Tunis shows just how strong the headwinds are as radical Islamists make their presence felt all across North Africa. It’s a small country where not only the United States but also a number of European countries are engaged.

Further enhancing the chances for a relatively liberal Tunisian polity: the country depends heavily on tourism from Europe. As Via Meadia readers have perhaps observed on their own from time to time, many Europeans like to drink and to dress in skimpy clothes when vacationing. A lot of Tunisians make their living from the tourist trade, and efforts by Islamist parties to close bars and enforce “modest” dress codes will be seen by hardworking Tunisians as direct threats to their businesses and their livelihoods.

If democracy doesn’t take root in Tunisa, it is unlikely to do well anywhere in the Arab world at this time. We should do what we can to support it, but ultimately this is something that the Tunisians must do for themselves.

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