By Bassam Bounenni, The Daily Star

Held in Geneva in late June, the conference of the International Association of Tunisian Expatriates (IATE) provoked the ire of the Tunisian authorities. Several human-rights activists and lawyers were intimidated or assaulted by plainclothes police at the Tunis-Carthage airport just for having attended the Geneva meeting and backing the basic rights of hundreds of exiled Tunisians to return home.

The first official reaction to this initiative, reminiscent of repeated Palestinian initiatives and attempts to end their tragic exile, came from Tunisia’s Justice and Human Rights Ministry, which shamelessly denied in a statement the mere existence of “any case of coercive migration.”

At the end of its meeting, IATE called for the return of Tunisian expatriates, with a guarantee of residency and freedom of movement, association and expression, as enshrined in the country’s Constitution adopted in June 1959. IATE’s founders also pledged to continue to exercise “the right to peaceful struggle,” according to what they think “shall be in the public’s best interest.”

The oldest Tunisian political expatriate is Noureddine Gafsi, who escaped a death sentence in 1962 for his alleged involvement in a plot against then President Habib Bourguiba. However, the vast majority of IATE’s founders and members fled Tunisia in the late 1980s, to avoid harassment, detention and trials targeting the Al-Nahda Islamist movement’s members and sympathizers. The IATE initiative, therefore, raises the thorny issue of Islamism in Tunisia.

The trials followed political arm wrestling when Al-Nahda established itself as the foremost opposition movement after having allegedly gained 14 percent of the vote in the fraudulent legislative elections of 1989. Human-rights groups and diplomats at the time had voiced concern that serious violations of fair-trial standards were committed. Those activists who couldn’t flee the country, mainly through Algeria, were jailed. Local and international human-rights groups reported that scores of Islamists died under torture or due to lack of medical attention.

In summer 1992, for instance, a trial of 279 Islamists took place before a military court. “These trials were seen as a test of the government’s commitment to human rights at a time of growing rep­ression that has affected not only the Is­lamist opposition, but much of civil society,” commen­ted Human Rights Watch in a report, re­leased that year. Since then, many Al-Nahda supporters settled in Europe.

Early this decade, the Tunisian authorities contacted Al-Nahda’s exiled leaders to find a solution to the situation. The re­gime asked them to relinquish their political role in return for being allowed to come home. This pushed the Islamist ac­tivists to sever their relations with the re­gime, which then found another alternative: It encouraged what was called “individual salvation,” not only to end the crisis but also to direct a blow against the Is­lamists. However, very few activists opted for this choice. Tunisian officials argue that Al-Nahda was an extremist movement willing to use violence to establish a theocracy. However, observers, even in the West, saw the movement as one of the most peaceful Islamist groups in the Muslim world. Influential think tanks have usually mentioned Al-Nahda when stressing the need for Arab regimes to do what they have long avoided and incorporate Islamists into the political arena.

Although talk about the return of Islamists or other dissidents from different political persuasions seems premature in Tunisia, in light of the current policies of the regime, all indications show the country is not isolated from the profound changes the Muslim world is witnessing. Many taboos have fallen and secularists and Islamists have joined in new protest groups. Among these is the October 18 Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has brought to light a third way wi­thin Tunisia’s political landscape. Indeed, after years of slumber, the Tunisian “street” awoke in 2005 to a hunger strike by democracy advocates of this movement. Their slogan was “Hunger, But Not Submission,” and the activists came from communist, nationalist and Islamist backgrounds.

While Tunisia is witnessing an unpre­cedented Salafist surge, apparently spurred by the rising attacks on basic rights, outsiders are convinced that Al-Nahda could play a major role in mentoring new generations of Islamists, es­pecially those who have succumbed to radical political Islam and expressed that loudly and violently. However, this is unlikely to happen. The Tunisian regime refuses to carry out any real political opening. It denies all political parties and independent civil society groups the right to exist, even as it encourages loyal parties and funds more than 8,000 organizations obedient to the regime.

This underlines how unlikely it is for Tunis to welcome the return of thousands of political refugees, especially those from Al-Nahda. A landmark event summarizes the situation: The long-serving political prisoner, and one of Al-Nahda’s most prominent figures, Sadok Chourou, was re-imprisoned earlier this year a few days after his release. His “crime” was giving interviews to the media.

That’s why most Tunisians, even among those who founded IATE, understand that the time for returning home hasn’t come yet. For them, the establishment of such an organization was just a way of expressing frustration and anger with a dark page of Tunisian history.

Bassam Bounenni, a Tunisian journalist based in Doha, Qatar, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.