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Secular Tunisia may face a new, younger Islamist challenge

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Tunisia has indeed solved what many of its Arab neighbors consider one of the region's greatest threats: the challenge presented by political Islam. While Egypt and Morocco accord opposition groups some space, however narrow or government-controlled, Tunisia has banned all Islamic parties.

More than 20 years ago, Abdullah Zouari supported the Islamist political party an-Nahda, which hoped to bring Islamic sharia law to Tunisia by winning elections.

"Our ideas were to talk about distributing the wealth of the country and," says Mr. Zouari, pulling out a book on the fundamentalist an-Nahda, pointing to a page listing their goals. The list includes transparency, modernizing Islam, and rebuilding an Islamic identity and civilization in Tunisia and the world.

In 1989, an-Nahda candidates made a strong showing in national elections. Soon after, the group was blamed for clashes with security forces, sporadic violence against government institutions, and plotting violent overthrow of the government. The government arrested tens of thousands of people through 1992 on charges of belonging to an-Nahda or plotting attacks in Tunisia.

"The regime depicted an-Nahda as being this brutal, Islamist force of crazies in order to get support of a pretty progressive middle class against it," says Clement Henry, a professor of political science and political economy at the University of Texas who says he has been banned from Tunisia for writing a critical article of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

"Many people had joined an-Nahda as an alternative to the regime as it became increasingly repressive," he said.

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