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After 20 years in exile, Rachid Ghannouchi urges moderation. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
After 20 years in exile, Rachid Ghannouchi urges moderation. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Bell

Is Tunisia on the road to Islamism? Add to ...

Tunisia’s first postrevolution election is the point of departure for a societal process that will determine whether Islamist governments are able to rule within a pluralist political system. The jury is out.

Tunisia bears watching. It has a well-educated, largely urban and homogeneous population, absent feuding tribes and sectarian fault lines. It has a secular, if autocratic, tradition. The army was determinant in throwing out Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but has neither the ability nor perhaps the inclination to dominate the process. The country’s ties with the West are numerous and tourism is essential, making it dependent on outside goodwill.

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Yet, Tunisia’s electoral turn toward Islam should come as no surprise. As elsewhere in the Arab world, the old autocrats rooted out the secular opposition through intimidation and violence but were unable to undermine the mosque, so deeply is it rooted in the Arab psyche. It has offered hope and promise in a world beset by injustice, corruption and brutality.

The youthful enthusiasts who took to the streets across the Middle East, a good majority secular by inclination, may well be disappointed. They were the means to change, but religious ideologues have roots. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt offers a broad range of social services that has been more effective than anything the Mubarak regime was able to deliver. This counts. As does a well-established and effective organizational structure, enabling the Brotherhood to marginalize its rivals. At counterpoint in Cairo is the military establishment, whose electoral manoeuvring suggests it may well keep a tight rein on state policy, as its Turkish counterpart did for decades.

Indeed, Turkey, with its mix of constrained Islamic governance and a strong secular tradition, seems a relative success and may be what Rachid Ghannouchi, the 70-year-old Tunisian Islamist leader, argues will be the case in his country. After 20 years in exile, he urges moderation. He says he has no interest in imposing Islam on others and that sharia will be only one of several sources of Tunisian law. He seeks a coalition with secular parties. Is he as well intended as he maintains? Can he bring it off if he is?

Islam, as a political philosophy, can swing from a type of modernist theology, which Mr. Ghannouchi is on record as espousing, to fundamentalism. This is more so in Egypt and still a greater risk in Libya, which lacks the most rudimentary elements of civil society. The Arab world’s ability to tolerate multiplicity of opinion and behaviour does not stack up well by comparison with others in the international community.

Observant Muslims, by definition, see the Koran as the unmediated word of God. Radical Islamists go further, seeking to enforce behavioural conformity to enable a return to a perfect, if imagined, past. This combines with a rejection of what they see as Western decadence and decay. But without the political malaise, corruption and autocracy so typical of Arab governments, such fundamentalism may well not have held sway. Islam as a belief system can, in theory, if less so in practice, be accepting of others. The Koran calls for tolerance toward “the People of the Book,” meaning Christian and Jewish adherents of the Bible. But context determines much.

Mr. Ghannouchi’s challenge will be to prove the skeptics wrong. Whether he wants to do so remains an open question. Whether he can, still more so.

Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.

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