Tunisia's Interim Government Faces Hurdles

A cabinet reshuffle of the interim government has largely calmed street protests in Tunisia. But the country faces huge questions about the democratic way forward. Key questions include what role will the formerly outlawed Islamist movement play in politics and elections.

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So we've heard elsewhere in the program today, about the influence of a major Islamist political party if there's a change of government in Egypt. Similar questions face Tunisia, and those questions are more immediate since the government has already changed. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports on a formerly outlawed Islamist movement.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In Tunis the protests haven't so much as ended, they've just moved inside the halls of power.

(Soundbite of women yelling in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: In a second floor corridor at the ministry of justice, a crowd of angry women demands answers about their imprisoned sons, brothers and husbands - all members of Islamist groups. Two slightly confused looking young soldiers with automatic rifles push back, but the women stand their ground.

(Soundbite of women yelling in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: The fragile interim government has declared an amnesty for political prisoners. But more than two weeks after dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali fled, these women say they've yet to hear anything about the fate of their loved ones. Hawahr Zahira says her 24-year-old son was jailed two years ago for expressing Islamist sympathies.

Ms. HAWAHR ZAHIRA: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: I want my son to be freed, freed from the prison. He has done nothing, she says, he was an engineering student. They took him in, calling him a terrorist, an enemy of the state, because he prayed at the mosque every day.

Tunisia has fiercely guarded its secular political nature since independence from France. Like Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk, Tunisia's first post-colonial president, Habib Bourguiba, saw political Islam as a threat to the state. Bourguiba banned Muslim headscarves in public buildings and introduced women's rights law that were among the most progressive in the Muslim world.

After ousting Bourguiba in a bloodless coup, Ben Ali at first allowed Islamists to run for office in 1989 elections. But that all changed after they won 17 percent of the vote - probably more because by all accounts, the elections were rigged in Ben Ali's favor. The president then cracked down hard. He banned the Ennahda or the Renaissance party in 1992 and jailed many of its followers, accusing them of conspiring to build a fundamentalist state. Human rights group say there was almost no evidence of that and confessions were gained through torture.

Now, after two decades of outlaw status, Islamists here are euphoric at the prospect of returning to politics. The founder of Ennahda, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi got a hero's welcome from supporters at Tunis airport this past weekend when he returned home after two decades in exile.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

WESTERVELT: Ghannouchi says his party is not a religious one, per se. We're a democratic civil party inspired by Muslim values, he says. Human rights groups, analysts and diplomats here say his vision of political Islam is moderate and akin to Turkey's ruling AK party.

Tunisia remains a largely secular society, so the idea that the Islamist party might play a significant role in political life has sparked jitters among some here. Makram Guebsi, with the secular People's Democratic Party, says the fear is there. But he has political faith that the newly empowered Tunisian voters will not embrace political Islam in significant numbers.

Mr. MAKRAM GUEBSI (People's Democratic Party): We have an Islamist community, we can't deny this. It is a fact. But Tunisian people, they are very smart and they can't accept that one day the Islamists govern this country.

WESTERVELT: Ennahda's leaders have yet to address, however, how they view basic issues such as the role of Islam in law, education, and women's rights.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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