Questions rise over Tunisian party's moderateness

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.

The appearance of a damning video or audio recording was a staple of the old system under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, when foes of the regime would be discredited with tapes often recorded by the omnipresent intelligence services.

Tunisians overthrew Ben Ali in January 2011, ending his 23 years of iron rule, and then elected a governing coalition led by his arch foes, the Ennahda Party.

"That feels to me like a very standard piece of tactical political combat in Tunisia, this practice of using video tapes to impugn people's reputations and mine their credibility," said Chris Alexander, a Tunisia expert at North Carolina's Davidson College. "It wouldn't surprise me if they had leaked it with the purpose of embarrassing Ghannouchi."

The question of who produced the tape has been hotly debated in Tunisia. The secular opposition, which is weak and divided in the face of Ennahda's commanding 40 percent bloc in parliament, has long been trying to paint the party as cousins to the Taliban.

Many also believe, however, that it could be the Salafis themselves, who after all were the ones privy to the meetings.

Tunisian police have arrested scores of Salafis for their alleged role in the attack on the embassy. Almost 100 are in custody, with some facing charges that could involve the death penalty, their lawyers say.

Ennahda has also let the Salafis down by agreeing with the secular parties not to say in the new constitution that all legislation must be based on Shariah, or Islamic law, a common clause in other Muslim nations but never in more progressive Tunisia.

"They are working hard to influence the editorial process that the draft constitution is going through," noted Alexander. "They are really upset the way Ennahda has been willing to moderate its positions."

The real damage to Ennahda from the incident could be its relations with its two coalition partners, the leftist Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol (Forum) parties.

"It is dangerous and contradicts the spirit of democracy and the values of tolerance of the Muslim religion," said Mohammed Bennour, the Ettakatol spokesman, while Imed Daimi of the CPR described the video as a "source of concern."

Ennahda went a long way to burnish its democratic credentials when it immediately sought to form a coalition with secular parties, despite its commanding position in the parliament.

In recent months, though, strains have appeared in the coalition with Ennahda and President Moncef Marzouki, who comes from the CPR party, having several public spats.

The mandate for the elected assembly is set to expire Oct. 23, a year after the elections, which will require the ruling coalition to agree on how the country will be managed until new legislative and presidential elections, expected next spring, are held.

"What's happening in Tunisia is not only the ordinary politics, the election campaign has started and demonizing Ennahda is crucial (for the opposition)," Ferjani said.

Paul Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.

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