Leaked recordings spark fears Tunisia is moving towards Islamist agenda

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FEARS are growing in Tunisia that its new government may be planning to introduce ­Islamist legislation after leaked conversations talking about alcohol bans and the imposition of religious laws appeared on the internet.

The Ennahda Party was elected on a moderate Islamist platform but last week Tunisia’s social media sites were flooded first by a video, then a phone recording showing ­Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of the party, appearing to discuss how to gradually Islamise Tunisian society.

Yesterday Ennahda said in a statement that the video was heavily edited to make Ghannouchi appear to be more extreme than the party’s actual positions. The video dates from February, it said.

“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.

But Tunisia’s secular opposition has been up in arms, saying it is proof that Ennahda’s modest rhetoric masks a radical agenda. On Thursday, opposition activist Noaman Fehri called for a judicial investigation of Ghannouchi, saying it is “evident that he ... 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 demonstrators burst through minimal security and stormed the US 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Non-essential embassy personnel have been withdrawn and have yet to return, and the US government advised all Americans to leave – a sad state of affairs for the country that kicked off the Arab Spring of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.

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 enemies 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.

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 per cent bloc in parliament, has long been trying to paint the party as cousins to the Taleban.

Many also believe, however, that it could be hard-line Islamists themselves.