How Islamist Politicians Became Popular in Tunisia

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood defied years of government repression to play a very prominent role in politics, and that was true even before Mubarak's downfall. In Tunisia, the former regime of President Sine El Abidine Ben Ali spent decades stamping out the Islamist movement known as Al-Nahda. Now that group is coming on strong. So says Marc Lynch, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Lynch just returned from a trip to Tunisia where he sawing growing mistrust of the Islamists and their rivals.

Marc Lynch: I think there's a sense that the revolution is slipping away, that the old regime is reasserting itself, and that the Islamists and Secularists are at each other's throats and they're not able to cooperate in the same way that they did during the revolution.

Werman: How do you explain how Al-Nahda, this main Islamist party, has risen up seemingly out of a void so quickly, so strong?

Lynch: It's pretty amazing because even when you talk to the leaders themselves, they don't fully understand it. Many people assume that Islamist movements are strong because they have this well-developed social sector and they can draw on kind of all of those services, but none of that existed in Tunisia. They were beginning from a blank slate. Now, one thing which helped them is because they were so thoroughly repressed they were completely clean of association with the former regime. But the other thing about Al-Nahda and the Islamist movement is that they've simply been working extremely hard at organization. They've been out in all the provinces. They've been aggressively developing their political organization leader, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, has personally visited and spoken at rallies in 22 out of the 24 provinces. I attended one Al-Nahda rally outside of Tunis, and it was quite an experience...about 5,000 people, Ghannushi spoke, and was received as a rock star. Women were crying to see him. It was quite a spectacle.

Werman: Hm, I was gonna ask you about Tunisian women -- are they worried about the direction the country seems to be headed in or are they front and center with the Islamists?

Lynch: I would say both. There's a very large contingent of traditional women and Islamist women that you see at the events; but you also have many women who were terrified that the rise of the Islamists is going to undermine their freedoms. We hear lots of feminists, ordinary people who worry that the Islamists use what they call a double discourse; the leadership says all the right things, and they offer very strong assurances on women's rights, personal freedoms and everything else. But what you hear is that the preachers in the mosques or the local level activists are saying very different things. And that sews mistrust.

Werman: So what's a way out of this polarization? I mean is there kind of a healthy debate Tunisians are having on the role of religion and democracy?

Lynch: Up until about a month ago the Tunisian opposition was extremely impressive in terms of their ability to maintain this united front. There had been dialogues and contacts between Al-Nahda and the other opposition parties for years before the fall of Ben Ali. And they had been able to come up with a working consensus on many of these issues about religion and democracy, human rights, women's rights, and that I think saw them through some of the early period after the transition.

So, what should be done I think is to go back to that earlier consensus, tone it down and kind of recognize that they're on the brink of blowing up something which was extremely promising.

Werman: Marc Lynch, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He's just back from Tunisia and was speaking to us about the country five months after its revolution. Marc, thanks very much.

Lynch: Thank you.