TUNIS, Tunisia — 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Non-essential embassy personnel have been withdrawn and have yet to return, and the U.S. government advised all Americans to leave — a sad state of affairs for the country that kicked off the region-wide Arab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.
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.