Tunisian protesters, gathered in front of the courthouse in Al-Qayrawan, chant slogans against Amina Tyler, a member of Ukranian feminist group Femen, accusing her of attacking the city and Islam. (Nawfel/AP)

Two and a half years after kindling a revolution that flamed across the Arab world, Tunisians have moved on to the next chapter, a political struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and the tolerant, Mediterranean-style Islam that has characterized their nation’s 57 years as an independent state.

Although Tunisia is a small country of 11 million people, its looming decisions on national identity, the role of religion and political organization touch on — and are likely to become a beacon for — the main challenges facing reformers across North Africa and the Middle East.

Tunisians, in effect, have reached the point in their democracy where Syria’s opposition wants to be after that country’s civil war, where Libyans want to be after they build a post-
Gaddafi state and where secular Egyptians want to be if and when an effective opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood arises.

“This is a laboratory,” said Manar Skandrani, a former activist in the ruling Islamist Ennahda party who has pulled away to try to form a party calling for dialogue between the secular-minded and the fundamentalists.

The political choices are particularly clear-cut in Tunisia, partly because of a large, activist middle class that has long looked toward France, the former colonial power, for much of its inspiration. Moreover, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s revered independence leader, promoted secular traditions and a relaxed Islam during a reign that lasted until senility overtook him in 1987 and he was pushed aside by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a colorless general who became a dictator.

But in the eyes of many Tunisians, the Western-oriented middle class and its secular traditions were “polluted” during Ben Ali’s nearly quarter-century of corruption and repression, according to Amor Shabou, who heads a secular political party, the Free Destourian Movement. As a result, after Ben Ali’s overthrow in January 2011, elections for a constituent assembly brought to power Ennahda, whose leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, had returned from exile and many of whose members were freshly released from Ben Ali’s jails.

With its record of battling Ben Ali, Ennahda was regarded as most likely to purify politics. But since the new government and constituent assembly took over in October 2011, the revolution has bogged down in endless disputes, mostly over the role of Islam in the future constitution but also over presidential powers.

Ennahda was determined to base the constitution on the sharia, a code of Islamic principles. But after prolonged squabbling with the secular minority, a formula saying that the country’s law is based on “Islamic teachings” was agreed on recently, though tentatively.

A draft of the new constitution was introduced this month, behind schedule, but many of its articles are still contested. The document must be approved by a two-thirds majority, promising more lengthy debates ahead. As a result, political figures predicted that fresh elections, which were supposed to take place this year, probably would be postponed to 2014 or even 2015, aggravating a sense of drift that dismays even Ennahda supporters.

Ghannouchi, in a conversation with Washington Post editors during a visit to the United States in May, said his party has been forced to make “many concessions” to secular parties. These include abandoning the attempt to declare sharia as the basis of law and accepting language that retains the Bourguiba heritage of equal rights for women.

But outside the assembly, Ghannouchi’s party over the past two years has allowed the rise of a strong Salafist movement, hard-liners dedicated to imposing a severe form of Islam. Some have organized in a group called Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Sharia, which has voiced support for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the global terrorist network’s affiliate in North Africa.

The leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Saif-Allah Benhassine, nicknamed Abu Iyadh, is wanted by Tunisian police and has gone underground. Government officials blamed his followers for a mob attack on the U.S. Embassy in September in which four people were killed and embassy buildings were heavily damaged.

In addition, an armed band calling itself the Uqba ibn Nafa Brigade has been discovered training for jihad, or holy war, around Mount Chaambi in far-western Tunisia, near the border with Algeria. The Interior Ministry said paramilitary troops have made a number of arrests and are seeking 20 Tunisians and 11 Algerians known to be among the would-be fighters.

The 18,000-man Tunisian army, which has been scouring the mountainous region for more than a month to break up the camps, has suffered three deaths in roadside bombings. Another soldier died after being accidentally shot by a fellow soldier during an ambush.

‘We want the sharia’

Al-Qayrawan, an inland city 120 miles south of Tunis, has been the historical center of Islam here since the arrival in the 7th century of a conquering Arab general, Uqba ibn Nafi. The stately Great Mosque, which Uqba ordered built using columns lifted from Roman ruins, was a renowned seat of Islamic and secular learning and has become one of Islam’s major shrines.

More recently, al-Qayrawan has been like a political whirlpool, attracting the currents swirling over Tunisia as it seeks to define its new personality.

Up to a third of the 150,000 residents are Salafist to one degree or another, visible in the narrow streets with their full beards and black marks on their foreheads. One such resident, a heavyset accountant with a reddish beard who had just finished noon prayers at the Laforati Mosque, said the Salafist goal is to “finish what we started” with the coup against Ben Ali.

“We want the sharia. All Tunisians want the sharia,” said a companion, adding with a smile that his name was “Osama, but not bin Laden.”

Ansar al-Sharia tried to hold a convention in al-Qayrawan last month, thinking it would be on friendly ground. But the government banned it, saying Ansar leaders failed to get a required permit. Hundreds of soldiers were deployed, touching off violent protests in al-Qayrawan and Tunis during which, according to Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, about 200 Islamist radicals were arrested.

But some of those gathered in al-Qayrawan were protesting in the other direction — against Ansar al-Sharia. They included Amina Sboui, 19, who under the name Amina Tyler posted topless photos of herself on the Internet in March to show her outrage over Islamist and Salafist attempts to roll back women’s rights.

Sboui, who had dyed her cropped hair white, was arrested after she tagged a slogan onto a low stone wall surrounding a cemetery. Charged with possession of a forbidden explosive device — a can of pepper spray — she was jailed for a week, tried and sentenced to pay a fine of $180.

Her attorney paid, but the court held her in jail pending possible new charges based on her Internet posting. Al-
Qayrawan judges were in no mood for leniency; two days earlier, a German woman and two French women, members of the FEMEN activist group, had ripped off their shirts in downtown Tunis to protest Sboui’s arrest.

They, too, were arrested; they were later sentenced to four months in prison. At about the same time, 20 Salafists who had been charged in connection with the September mob attack on the U.S. Embassy were given suspended sentences and released.

Shift against Islamist group

The assassination in February of Chokri Belaid, a union organizer and secular activist, shocked Tunisian society, becoming something of a turning point for the Ennahda government and, perhaps, for the struggle to redefine Tunisian politics.

The Interior Ministry blamed it on Islamist extremists. Responding to the outcry for a crackdown, Ennahda reshuffled its government. Larayedh, a former interior minister known as a law-and-order figure, was installed as prime minister and technocrats took over most other ministries.

Since then, the government’s attitude toward Ansar al-Sharia has hardened noticeably.

Ghannouchi, who has no government position but is Ennahda’s supreme guide, has said that Ansar draws inspiration from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In his conversation in Washington, Ghannouchi estimated at 5,000 the number of Ansar Salafists who want to violently oppose the government. He qualified them as “very isolated” but said, “They make a lot of noise.”

Along with the shift against Ansar, however, the Ennahda movement has launched a parliamentary offensive against its secular opponents. With a proposed law to “immunize the revolution,” political figures associated with Ben Ali’s rule would be excluded from holding office.

“The main target is me,” said Beji Caid Essebsi, 86, who served in key positions under Bourguiba and whose Call for Tunisia party, in alliance with other secular groups, has gained enough strength in recent opinion polls to raise hopes of defeating Ennahda in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections.

Essebsi said his support is swelling because Tunisians feel that the revolution has stalled under Ennahda. He also said that people are upset over the anemic, tourist-scarce economy and that a majority of Tunisians reject the Islam promised by Ennahda and Ansar al-Sharia.

“We are for a secular state, while they are for a religious state,” he said. “The bottom line is that we stand for two different kinds of society.”