TUNIS, Tunisia – For decades, Tunisians espousing political Islam were banned, jailed and forced underground by their country's autocratic regime.
Now they are seeking a place in government — raising fears that Islamic radicalism might take root in Tunisia, long seen by the West as a bulwark against terrorism.
With the promise that democracy will replace dictatorship, members of the outlawed Ennahdha party have taken to the streets, joining daily protests aimed at banishing all traces of the former ruling party of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Such activism by the Islamists — who want a role for Islam in their country's politics — is feeding jitters that extremism may be on the rise in Tunisia, long a Westward-looking nation proud of its modern identity. Women enjoy widespread freedoms, Muslim headscarves are banned in public buildings and abortions, a deep taboo in most Muslim societies, are legal in Tunisia.
Members of Ennahdha, Renaissance in English, say fears of radicalism have no merit.
"The Western media is frightening people, saying that 'the Islamists are rising.' But we are not to be feared," said party spokesman, Hamadi Jebali.
Such a public profile by the Islamist group would have been unthinkable during the rule of Ben Ali, who banned it in 1992, accusing it of conspiring to kill him and establish a Muslim fundamentalist state. Group leaders say their confessions were extracted through torture.
Less than a week after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Ennahdha's No. 2 leader has already met with Tunisia's prime minister amid efforts to form a new government. The Islamist party's exiled founder, Rachid Ghanouchi, is waiting to return from London, where he has lived for nearly two decades.
The United States, Tunisia's former colonial ruler France and other Western powers long supported Ben Ali, in large part because the North African nation was an anchor of stability in a volatile region and a trusted ally in the fight against terrorism.
Already, the regional al-Qaida spinoff, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is looking to capitalize on Tunisia's new era, urging Tunisians to train in their camps and "wage the decisive battle against the Jews, the Crusaders and their agents," according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors al-Qaida communiques.
Tunisia's Western allies have expressed concerns about rising radicalism. A day before Ben Ali fled, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a stark warning to Arab leaders that they must open economic and political space to the Mideast's exploding youth population if they want to blunt extremism.
Euphoria has swept Tunisia since the flight of Ben Ali, who ruled for 23 years and quashed all opposition.
But for many, the yearning for pluralism born with their "people's revolution" stops with the Islamists. Fears of lost social freedoms or a rise in radicalism pose too great a risk to allow a voice for even a moderate version of political Islam, as Ennahdha says it offers.
"That's the danger. I'm against political Islam," said Habib Jerjir, a leader of the Regional Workers' Union of Tunis.
Like many in this Mediterranean nation, he wants to see the myriad opposition movements that have been banned until now have a place on the political scene — but not one that combines Islam with politics. "We must block their path," Jerjir said.
Long a tourist haven, Tunisia was put on its secular path by its modern-day founder Habib Bourguiba. He outlawed Muslim headscarves in public buildings and introduced a code that freed women from many of the constraints they face in other Arab countries. He famously once went on television during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan suggesting citizens should eat.
Ben Ali, who toppled Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, initially took a softer approach to the Islamists. Ennahdha won 17 percent of the vote in 1989 legislative elections, with its candidates running as independents. Then, Ben Ali's crackdown began.
The scenario most feared by those opposed to an Islamist presence in politics became a reality in neighboring Algeria, a former French colony like Tunisia. There, a Muslim fundamentalist party became a vehicle for despairing jobless youth and swept up large segments of society.
Once legalized, it bounded to the forefront of political life, overtaking the longtime ruling party. The army canceled 1992 elections the fundamentalists were poised to win, prompting a decade-long insurgency.
There is no way to measure the extent of public support for Ennahdha, long a clandestine movement. But with a freedom of expression never before known in this country of 10 million, those who support a greater role for Islam in politics are daring to speak up.
"Now, there has been a total change, and I feel a sense of peace and the right to speak," said Mahmoud Gharbi, who spent a year in prison two decades ago for his Islamist activities.
The 46-year-old would not say whether he would join Ennahdha if it is given legal status. "But if we really want to practice democracy, we have to give everyone a chance," he said.
Abdelatif Ben Lamine, a banker and imam, wants to see everyone's political agenda made public, including Ennahdha's.
"We're in a very delicate phase," he said. "In our society, there are Islamists, democrats, capitalists, communists. It's a cocktail."
Referring to Ennahdha, he added: "We must dig into their ideas to see if they are moderate or not. We must give everyone a chance to make his political agenda public."
At their meeting Thursday with Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, Ennahdha members asked the interim leadership to "turn the page as soon as possible," said Ajmi Lourimi, a founding member of the group.
"We asked to participate in political life. The response was positive," Lourimi said. However, their request for the return of all exiles "will take some time," the group was told.
"We want to reconcile Tunisians with their identity, their values, their culture," said Lourimi, who was freed in 2007 from 17 years in prison.
"We don't come from another planet. We're part of society. I don't know why anyone should worry," Lourimi said. "Religion is part of our personality."
AP reporters Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tunis, Salah Nasrawi in Cairo and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report.