The Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda, which is coming to the surface after 20 years in exile, in prison, in hiding or in hibernation, faces the toughest test that any Islamic party in the Arab world has faced since the military took power and closed down the Islamic Salvation Front in neighbouring Algeria in 1992. Tunisians, Arabs and the wider world will be watching al-Nahda closely to see how an Islamic party operates on a political scene which promises to be more inclusive than almost anywhere else in the Arab world. The political contest between al-Nahda and its opponents will be over the validity and popularity of the aggressively 'laiciste' ('secular') ideology promoted by the two presidents Tunisia has had since independence in 1957 - a contest which has implications way beyond little Tunisia. The contest will not, as in Iraq and Lebanon, be between rival sectarian voting blocs who use religious symbols as mobilising tools. Since Tunisia has no politically significant religious minorities (Sunni Islam is close to universal), the contest there will be over the extent to which the country's 'cultural heritage', including Islam, should count in determining government policies. If al-Nahda takes part in some post-election government, even as a junior partner, its leadership will be judged on how they translate their cultural vision into practice and on how they interact with their political opponents. Public statements by Nahda leaders over the past 23 years, starting from the brief political 'spring' they enjoyed in the first years of former President Ben Ali, have usually kept well within the parameters of liberal democracy. Now, after 20 years of oppression, Nahda leaders will be wary of giving their opponents any excuse to drive them out of politics again. The New York Times interviewed Ali Larayedh, a Nahda leader who spent 14 years in jail, in Tunis. "(Larayedh) insisted that his party posed no threat to Tunisians or to tourists sipping French wine in their bikinis along the Mediterranean beaches. Years of contemplation in prison and exile had helped his party ... to 'enlarge our views to encompass Western values,' he said. The result, he said, is a uniquely liberal version of Islamist politics, though one that remains unapologetic about its past calls for violence against American interests in the region." Party spokesman Hamadi Jebali told the Associated Press: "The Western media is frightening people, saying that 'the Islamists are rising.' But we are not to be feared. We are not the Taliban or al-Qaida or Ahmadinejad ... We will submit to the vote of the people when the time comes." On the spectrum of possible Islamist parties, al-Nahda stands roughly in the same area as Turkey's AKP, but with none of its practical experience (the AKP has been in power since 2002) and little of its political sophistication. Likeminded Islamists in Egypt have tried for years to form their own Wasat (Centre) Party, but the authorities have repeatedly denied them a licence, possibly for fear that the model would prove too attractive and would undermine the establishment's argument that all Islamists are incorrigibly dangerous.
Only one week after Ben Ali took flight, speculation about the level of support for al-Nahda among the Tunisian population is already rife, almost all of it based on anecdotal evidence or casual remarks by prominent Tunisians. At one extreme, the Daily Telegraph of London headlined: "Islamist movement at forefront of Tunisia's protests" and predicted it would emerge as the strongest political force in elections. But others have 'noted' the absence of religion-based slogans in any of the protests and hailed the Tunisian uprising as a new secular model of opposition to the aging autocrats who rule much of the Arab world. This raises two questions to which the answers will become clear as the process unfolds in Tunis.
Firstly, given that the level of support for al-Nahda in the 1989 elections was at least between 10 and 17 percent in areas they contested (and probably higher because of electoral malpractices by the ruling party and the state), would one now expect it to be higher or lower? I have read the argument that it must be lower now because Ben Ali successfully imposed his 'laiciste' model. Under the former president, those who engaged in public displays of piety were at a serious disadvantage in a number of ways, especially employment in a range of public-sector jobs. Police monitored attendance at mosques and sometimes had informers report on whether a suspect's female relatives covered their hair. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many pious Tunisians would keep their religious commitment under wraps. But attempts to suppress religious activity elsewhere (in Soviet Russia, Albania and China, for example) have had unpredictable results, and in most of those cases the pious were living in a cultural environment isolated from correligionists speaking the same language and living in neighbouring countries.
Secondly, what can we expect to see from al-Nahda when it comes to working with others on the political scene? The events of the past month may throw some light on that. If Tunisian Islamists were living under cover and unable to organize, it is hardly surprising that they were not visible as leaders of the popular movement which overthrew Ben Ali (in fact, no leaders of any kind are readily visible). But it is more than probable that some of those who took part were Islamists, working with non-Islamists for the same common goal. For the moment al-Nahda is supporting the same political agenda as the rest of the opposition - a new government with an independent prime minister to oversee the process of preparing for elections, along with all the usual and widely accepted guarantees of fairness. If cooperation between the Islamists and the others on practical objectives continues and if there is no reversion to 'laiciste' autocracy, then the existence of an Islamist party in a fully democratic Arab country might soon appear completely unremarkable.