TUNIS Secular politicians in Tunisia said on Thursday that a leaked video of a secret meeting between the leader of the ruling Islamist party and puritanical Salafis showed the government was not the moderate Islamist force it claimed to be.
In the video, Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi is heard discussing which parts of the state have fallen into the hands of Islamists and advising Salafis on where they should focus their efforts to spread their influence further.
The footage has angered liberals who say Salafis threaten human rights in a country once seen as a beacon of Arab secularism, but which is now under siege from religious hardliners who have attacked cinemas and artistic performances, arguing that they violate Islam.
Salafis also led an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis last month that killed four people, after an anti-Islam film made in California sparked anger across the region.
Ghannouchi's office said his comments, which were made at a meeting in April and released on the Internet this week, were merely part of an attempt to persuade Salafis to work peacefully for change within a political framework.
But secular politicians said the footage confirmed their fears about Ennahda, which rules with two junior partners in government, and warned of a new dictatorship.
"I made a mistake when I said before that Ennahda is moderate," said Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as prime minister last year after former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. "I am shocked ... after hearing this from the leader of the ruling party I'm afraid for Tunisia."
Others said they would lobby for a parliamentary vote withdrawing confidence in the government.
"Ghannouchi's remarks solved the mystery of why things have deteriorated in the country and Salafi violence has spiralled," said Issam Chebbi of the Republican Party.
Under pressure to stem such violence, Ghannouchi has sought to market Ennahda as a moderate Islamist force and to distance it from the Salafi movement. But his comments suggest he is quietly working with them behind the scenes.
"Secularists still control the economy, the media and the administration ... the army and police also is not guaranteed," Ghannouchi said in the meeting with Salafi leaders, during which he advised them to be patient about gaining more control.
"Now we have not just a few mosques, we have the Ministry of Religious Affairs ... I invite you to do what you can with religious lessons and launch radio, television and schools."
He said Islamists should focus on social gains and learn from neighboring Algeria, where an Islamist party won an election in 1992 only for the army to cancel the vote.
"The Islamists should use the popular associations, establish Koranic schools everywhere and appeal for more religious preachers because people are still ignorant of Islam," he said.
With the fall of Ben Ali in last year's revolt, Western countries had feared that Tunisia could become a soft target for al Qaeda militants using the Saharan region to entrench themselves in north Africa.
But Ennahda, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its Freedom and Justice Party, has since won plaudits from Western countries and enjoys the backing of Gulf power Qatar, whose pan-Arab channel Al Jazeera gives it generally positive coverage.
The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia in the wake of the uprising, which sparked "Arab Spring" revolts that have empowered Islamists throughout the region.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Andrew Osborn)