Questions rise over Tunisian party's moderateness

Associated Press Published: October 13, 2012
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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Leaked conversations mentioning alcohol bans and the imposition of religious law have raised fears that Tunisia's new government may not be as moderate as it appears, especially in the context of mob attacks on the U.S. Embassy that coincided with the killing of the American ambassador in neighboring Libya.

The leaks, however, may also just be attempts by the secular opposition or religious conservatives to embarrass the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party before next year's elections.

Tunisia's social media sites were flooded Wednesday by first a video, then a phone recording showing Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of the once-banned Ennahda Party that dominated recent elections, appearing to discuss how to gradually Islamize society and triumph over secularism.

Ennahda said in a statement the video, from February, was heavily edited to make Ghannouchi appear to be more extreme than the party's actual positions.

"A number of sentences and sections were taken out of context and edited in such a way as to misrepresent their meaning in a deplorable return to the old methods of vilification used by the former regime," party official Ameur Larayedh said in a statement.

But Tunisia's secular opposition has been up in arms, saying it is proof of longstanding claims that Ennahda's modest rhetoric masks a radical Islamist agenda. On Thursday, opposition party member Noaman Fehri called for a judicial investigation of Ghannouchi, saying it is "evident that he does not believe in democracy, but wants to install a new dictatorship."

The recordings also have threatened Ennahda's relationship with its coalition partners. And their emergence comes amid real worries about Tunisia's direction after several thousand demonstrators burst through minimal security and stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tunis last month, tore down the American flag and looted and burned buildings.

Non-essential embassy personnel have been withdrawn and have yet to return, and the U.S. government advised all Americans to leave — a sad state of affairs for the country that kicked off the region-wide Arab Spring of pro-democracy uprisings and was seen as one of the best hopes for the region, with its small, well-educated and homogenous population.

It is especially serious in light of the attacks in neighboring Libya where four diplomats, including the ambassador, were killed in an assault, throwing U.S. relations with that country into question, not to mention shattering any lingering optimism over the ease of its democratic transition.

The U.S. was not initially pleased with the Tunisian government's tepid response to the Tunis attack, though it has since been mollified by more vigorous measures to boost security.

"There was incompetence clear to any eye for those who were in charge of securing the embassy," senior Ennahda official Said Ferjani told The Associated Press. "It's our 9/11 and we really have to sort it out and make sure that everything has been dealt with properly in the framework of the law."

He said the video was an effort by Ghannouchi at the time to encourage the Salafis — ultraconservative Muslims who insist on the immediate imposition of Islamic law — to take a gradual approach and work within the system to advance their beliefs rather than through violence.

"We have to make sure that the whole Salafi trend isn't pushed into the lap of al-Qaida. We have to isolate the violent elements," he added. "He is trying to convince them that the soft approach, the moderate approach, is the best one."

Ennahda has said that it would never impose Islamic law and is comfortable with parties seeking to govern in a secular fashion. It has compromised with other parties in keeping references to Islamic law out of the first article of the constitution and abandoned attempts to change language about men and women being equal to being "complementary," which had worried women's rights activists.