Should the World Trust Islamists?

Newly powerful groups in Egypt and Tunisia cannot afford to become Hamas-like international pariahs, but they should be watched closely.

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Tunisian Islamist party leader Rached Ghannouchi, right, speaks with a deputy. Reuters


TUNIS -- Like it or not, this is the year of the Islamist.

Fourteen months after popular uprisings toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist political parties - religiously conservative groups that oppose the use of violence - have swept interim elections, started rewriting constitutions and become the odds-on favorites to win general elections.

Western hopes that more liberal parties would fare well have been dashed. Secular Arab groups are divided, perceived as elitist or enjoy tepid popular support.

But instead of the political process moving forward, a toxic political dynamic is emerging. Aggressive tactics by hardline Muslims generally known as Salafists are sowing division. Moderate Islamists are moving cautiously, speaking vaguely and trying to hold their diverse political parties together. And some Arab liberals are painting dark conspiracy theories.

Ahmed Ounaies, a pro-Western Tunisian politician who briefly served as foreign minister in the country's post-revolutionary government, said that he no long trusted Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party. Echoing other secular Tunisians, he said some purportedly moderate Muslim leaders are, in fact, aligned with hardliners.

"We believe that Mr. Ghannouchi is a Salafist," Ouanies said in an interview. "He is a real supporter of those groups."

Months after gaining power, moderate Islamists find themselves walking a political tightrope. They are trying to show their supporters that they are different from the corrupt, pro-Western regimes they replaced. They are trying to persuade Western investors and tourists to trust them, return and help revive flagging economies. And they are trying to counter hardline Salafists who threaten to steal some of their conservative support.

The decision this week by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to field a candidate in the country's presidential elections - which begin next month - is one example. The Brotherhood, which had promised not to field a candidate, said it entered to block a hardline Islamist from winning the presidency. Liberals scoffed at the explanation, accused the Brotherhood of seeking dictatorial powers and pulled out of the country's constitutional assembly.

In Tunisia, Ghannouchi and his Ennahda party are the focus. Tunisians say debates over religion are distracting the country's new government from its primary problem - a sputtering economy. Secularists accuse Ennahda of being too lenient on hardline Salafists, who enjoy little popular support here. Salafists have the right to protest in the new Tunisia, secularists argue, but should not be allowed to violently attack other groups.

Salafists attacked a television station in October after it aired the animated film "Persepolis," which featured a portrayal of God. They partially shut down a leading university for two months this winter and attacked a group of secular demonstrators last month.

At the same time, a Tunisian judge jailed a newspaper editor for eight days in February after he published a photograph of a soccer player and his nude girlfriend on the cover of a local tabloid. On Thursday, two young men were sentenced to seven years in jail for posting cartoons of a nude Prophet Muhammand on Facebook.

In a recent interview here, Ghannouchi flatly dismissed supporting hardline Islam. Asked whether Tunisia's divisions were broadening, he answered carefully.

"I am not pessimistic," he told me. "There is a chance to reach a compromise."

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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