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Secular Tunisia may face a new, younger Islamist challenge

Analysts say a growing number of young fundamentalists are increasingly restless in a country that bans all religious parties.

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While a potent Islamic movement once challenged this country's ruling elite, today political Islam has all but vanished here. This kind of dissent has been quashed to near extinction.

But even though the more popular religious parties have vanished after more than 20 years of facing harsh government crackdowns, a new wave of resistance appears to be taking shape.

It is bubbling up in universities and among young people who may again attempt to challenge Tunisia's brand of enforced secularism and agitate for greater political openness.

Some analysts and a Tunisian lawyer who defends many young Tunisian men charged with plotting attacks on the government say cutting off all political avenues is leading to the radicalization of some young people at a time when the region is particularly charged with anger over US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"At the beginning the system [tried] to finish all Islamist movements. Despite everything the government is doing, it is increasing and it became more popular among students, good students," says Abdel Raouf al-Ayadi, a lawyer in Tunis.

He says the young men are growing more conservative and some are following the fundamentalist Salafist ideology that some militant groups have also adopted.

"Here the government is thinking [militants] are doing [violent] things because they don't have enough money to live. But the real reason is the occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia. It's political, not economic at all," says Mr. Ayadi.

Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who helped author a report on Islamist movements in the Arab world, said the continued lack of political space locked mainstream political Islamists in a confrontational position with the government and "you force elements of their constituencies to consider other strategies," says Mr. Hamzawy.


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