How Arabs Fight Islamism: A Letter from Tunis

Issue: Fall 2003

If there is one foreign leader whose views were validated by the painful events of September 11, 2001, it is Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. For years he has conducted a no-holds-barred battle against Islamism in Tunisia. And unlike in Algeria, Tunisia's neighbor to the east, Ben Ali has largely won.

One price of the extirpation of Islamic militants in Tunisia prior to September 11 has been an incessant barrage of foreign (often French) press criticism for various human rights violations. Watchdog NGOs like Human Rights Watch piled it on as well. While he kept up the heat at home, Ben Ali often found that Islamist exile leaders had been given a pass, finding comfortable perches in London or Frankfurt. Ben Ali chided Western countries as early as 1994 for "serving as rear bases for fundamentalist terrorists", pointing to laissez faire attitudes toward the political activities (and worse) of Islamic exiles in London, Frankfurt and Paris.

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