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Tunisians wary as Islamists emerge from hiding

Islamists, long oppressed under the former regime, had little to do with the uprising, but they could benefit from a transition to democracy. The thought unsettles some in this largely secular country.

January 30, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Many say with relief that the Islamist movements are not as strong as they were in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Ben Ali began a widespread crackdown. The young people who led this month's uprising are too conscientious to replace one dictatorship with another, they say. And the older generations that gave the revolution against Ben Ali their blessing did so in the name of freedom, not faith.

"We have those who make their prayers, but you don't have to make your prayers," says Saida bin Ayad, a 42-year-old homemaker in Cite Solidarite. "We want all types. We want freedom, not an Islamic country."

Elections will decide how much strength the Islamists have. But unlike elections in other Arab countries, the upcoming vote won't position a secular ruling party against a token opposition or Islamists. A wide variety of parties will compete, and Islamists will have no particular advantage.

"In completely fair, credible and transparent elections, would an Islamist candidate get some parliamentary seats?" says a Western diplomat in Tunis, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. "If he was charismatic and well-connected to the community, probably. I would argue that's a healthy thing."

A crucial factor in the elections will be those who manage to either provide economic solutions or convince the public they have answers.

"We want to play a positive role and gather the conditions for a democratic future," says Lourimi Ajmi, a leading member of the Nahda party.

As a young Islamic activist discreetly distributing leaflets and holding underground meetings, Ajmi idolized Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who established the world's first modern theocracy. But Ajmi now calls experiments in Islamic rule in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan dismal failures.

He says democracy and economic prosperity, not Sharia law, are the best ways to advance the Islamic agenda.

"We want to create a Tunisian model close to the social and educational aspirations of our country," he says. "We believe that democracy is the shortest and most direct path to development. But our youth need a validation of their Islamic identity."

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