Ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali spent much of his 23-year rule crushing Islamist opposition groups who opposed his government’s brand of strict secularism: after September 11 2001, he was an enthusiastic backer of Washington’s “war on terror”.
But the evidence of the past week is that the protest slogans that rang out before his fall demanded not an imposition of Islamic sharia law but fair elections and free speech.
“The lesson from what’s happening in Tunisia is that (Arab leaders) won’t be able to hide any more behind the Islamist threat argument,” said Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa specialist at social sciences school EHESS in Paris.
It remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s enfeebled Islamists will be able to win significant support in the event that they are unbanned and allowed to contest planned free elections.
But so far most complaints leveled at a new interim government set up after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia have focused not on a lack of Islamists but on too many faces from the old regime.
Islamists were “not able to carry the concerns and longings of the vast majority of Tunisian people, especially the middle class which has chosen freedom and justice”, said Egyptian political analyst Nabil Adbel Fatah.
It looks embarrassing for the Western governments that spent decades justifying their support for Ben Ali — and other secular-minded Arab world strongmen — by suggesting the alternative was Iran-style Islamic revolution.
From Syria to Egypt and Algeria, governments have used the Islamist peril to justify draconian security policies and emergency laws that gnawed at civil liberties and allowed broad powers of search, arrest and imprisonment without trial.
Civil liberties campaigners have long said the Islamist threat is a thin pretext to destroy not just the Islamists but all challenges to the grip of ruling elites.
“We’ve seen this in Egypt, where the regime makes it impossible for secular political opposition forces to get anywhere in order to tell the West it’s the Islamists or us,” said North Africa expert Hugh Roberts.
Analysts said Arab rulers might respond by backtracking on anti-Islamist rhetoric and warning instead of the danger of social chaos caused by high unemployment.
Political Islam does seem uniquely weak in Tunisia — a relatively wealthy country with a strong education system and deep ties to secular France — compared to its Arab neighbours.
Leaders of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) movement have said they want to cooperate with the interim government, not overthrow the country’s secular institutions.
Tunisian authorities outlawed Ennahda in the early 1990s, after accusing it of a violent plot to overthrow secular rule. Hundreds of Ennahda supporters were put on trial in Tunisia in the 1990s while others fled to Europe.
The movement, whose exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi has said he plans to return, denies it seeks violence. Its thinking is seen by some analysts as in tune with the moderate Islamist-rooted AK party that came to power in Turkey in 2002.
In a bid to expoit Tunisia’s unrest, the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb called on Tunisian youth to join its fighters for training in Algeria.
But analysts say the group has negligible support, even in Algeria. Al Qaeda analyst Camille Tawil said that while small numbers of angry young Tunisians might eventually be tempted, it was clear demonstrators were ordinary people protesting against despotism and the al Qaeda appeal would have no impact.
Across the region, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have bolstered the message propagated by religious radicals that the West is waging a war on Muslims.
In reaction, Arab societies have become more outwardly pious, with more women wearing veils, more men wearing beards and more people attending mosques.
Even in Tunisia, mosques became spaces for political protest and some young Tunisians adopted a language of revolt that took a cue from Salafist groups and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
“There has been growth in Tunisia of what could be called manifestations of popular piety,” said Michael Willis of Oxford University. “But many Tunisians see that as a protest against the regime, as Ben Ali spoke against headscarves.”
“The Islamist opposition is not what it was 20 years ago,” said Boubekeur. “Many young people don’t even know who Rached Ghannouchi is.”
Elsewhere in the Arab world, moderate Islamists have become part of the political landscape, all touting the values of freedom and democracy, at least in public.
“We hope (Tunisia’s) popular intifada will be crowned by a pluralistic democratic regime that guarantees everyone their rights,” Sheikh Hamsour Mansour, head of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, told Reuters.
Commenting on Tunisia, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party said “achieving stability and prosperity is tied to respecting the democratic option and the people’s will”.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the overthrow of an autocrat in Tunisia and said many Tunisian problems were also true of Egypt.
The group, which is the country’s biggest opposition force and could rally thousands of supporters according to some analysts, refuses to confront the state on the streets. — Reuters.