Secular Tunisians wonder: Maybe this revolution wasn't such a good idea

Secular parents, surprised to find their daughter covering her hair in public, worry they are losing their child to extremism. Moderately religious families argue over a son’s decision to grow a beard and demonstrate against aspects of Tunisian life they have always taken for granted: beer and wine, bikinis on the beach, Hollywood movies on TV. In workplaces, kitchens and sidewalk tearooms, one question dominates: Can and should Tunisia’s blend of Western and Islamic values and practices be maintained under the North African country’s new freedom, or has that freedom unleashed a religious extremism that threatens to push this land of 10 million people toward a new kind of dictatorship?…

“The secular message was aimed at the elite,” says Cherif, a slim, elegant woman who drives a big sport-utility vehicle, a rare sight in Tunis. “We targeted the brain, and the Islamists went for the heart. They talked about honesty, faith and justice — and jobs. We were completely wrong.” Her party won only four of 218 seats in the parliament.

Ennahda, which won a plurality of seats, put hundreds of volunteers to work writing pro-Islamist, anti-secular comments on Tunisians’ Facebook pages. Ennahda portrayed the secular elite as dominated by intellectuals who had spent too much time outside Tunisia or as affluent capitalists who had remained silent under Ben Ali and were complicit in his reign.

Now, with what some secular Tunisians call “the beards” on the rise, some in the new government worry that Tunisian democracy could prove brittle. “The people are losing patience, waiting for jobs,” says Yadh Ben Achour, who ran the country’s constitutional commission. “The risk is that protests could lead to chaos, which could take us right back to dictatorship.”

But if the ruling coalition cracks down on extremists, he says, it can buy time to rebuild the economy. “Radicals in Tunisia don’t have deep social roots like in Egypt,” he says. “The average Tunisian already has democracy in their heads.”

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