TUNIS—Yayha bin Abdallah grabbed a rusty table and chair from a borrowed office and plopped them down on an unkempt lawn at a university campus here.
That would have to suffice as a place to sit since Abdallah’s student union, popular among Islamists, did not yet have a working space of its own. Only recently did the government grant it legal permission to operate, students said, after being outlawed for more than 20 years—a significant achievement for Islamist students.
Now, students say the union is seeing climbing membership, underscoring the continuing success of Islamists’ participation in social groups and political life three years after the ouster of the country’s longtime leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“Ours was the only student union dissolved under Ben Ali,” said Tourshi Mohammed, secretary general of the union at Tunis El Manar University. “And now it’s back, which is a huge accomplishment.”
When the union, known as UGTE or the General Tunisian Union of Students, was founded in 1985, its leaders were Islamist students. Six years later, authorities accused the group of stockpiling arms and banned it.
But the tide turned after Ben Ali was ousted from power in early 2011 and Islamists rose to power. The student union reemerged, holding its first congress after more than two decades last April and drawing robust support from students.
“We are a movement that has a project and we base our project on the Muslim Arab identity,” said Abdallah, head of media for UGTE at Tunis El Manar University, noting that many members also belong to Islamist political parties. “But that doesn’t mean we are following an agenda.”
“We work for the best interests of the students even though many of our members and leaders are from Ennahda,” he added, referring to the party that was elected to power after Ben Ali’s ouster.
Following a broad, sweeping backlash against Islamist leaders across the region last year, the reemergence and apparent success of the union could be viewed as a sign of how far Tunisia has come in its efforts to develop a pluralistic democracy that includes Islamists—an effort that has faced mounting hurdles elsewhere.
In Egypt, the military-backed government has grown increasingly repressive since the army chief, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July. Authorities threw thousands of its political opponents in jail while others are on trial, namely leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Morsi. Libya is struggling with militants running amok and has yet to write a new constitution after the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Syria is imploding under civil war, and political progress has stalled in Yemen.
In Tunisia, however, political groups appear to have learned to compromise over their divisions, leading to the recent adoption of a celebrated constitution and paving the way for elections later this year. In January, the Islamist-led government stepped down to be replaced by a government of technocrats as part of an agreement made between political opponents last year.
“Tunisia is a clear example that what we need in the Arab world is political will and leadership on the part of the rival social and political groups,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “If you listen carefully to what Tunisians say, they realize there were two stark choices: either compromise or confrontation. They have risen to the challenge.”
Yet in a microcosmic indicator of the severe ideological divides that continue to permeate Tunisian society, not all students recognize the union comprised of many Islamists.
“They have never been legal and they just got their legal permit to exist not long ago thanks to the government,” said Chokri Kassaoui, a first-year graduate student at Manouba University. “The only legal and reliable representative of students is UGET.”
UGET, or the General Union of Tunisian Students, is the main competitor of the more- Islamist union, drawing support primarily from liberal and leftist-leaning students. It was founded in 1952 and considers itself to be the most prominent and popular union at Tunisian universities.
The general union, unlike the one with a reputation for being Islamist, also appears to have the support of at least some university administrations—sparking criticism among Islamists who say university leaders often side with secular students in ideological disputes.
“They always take the side of UGET,” said Abdallah. “When university elections are held, teachers help UGET to win. They are always against us and consider us pro-Islamist, which is a false accusation.”
But the reborn union is determined to expand. Abdallah said there are 125 union branches with as many as 7,000 students involved at faculties nationwide. Over the next two years, leaders are aiming to reach 15,000 members, he said. (Its rival, UGET, has 178,000 members, according to Tunisia Live, an English-language news website.)
While union leaders say that not all of those belonging to the union are Islamists, members include both moderate and fundamentalist Muslims, raising questions about possible security repercussions in a country battling Islamic militancy.
University campuses across the Arab world have long been hotbeds for development of radical activities and beliefs. And while police monitored and repressed social and political activity on campuses for years, they were removed after Ben Ali’s ouster. (See related article “In Tunisia, Academic “Families” Protect University Campuses.”)
Initial outcomes of this newfound freedom were evident in one of the country’s most publicized protest movements that started in late 2011. Students at Manouba University demanded that female students be allowed in class wearing the face veil, or niqab, drawing support from Islamists off campus. UGTE was initially involved in the unrest that eventually caused the closure of the campus, just one indicator of their activism.
“For us it was not about the niqab,” said Shaimaa Yanalou, head of UGTE at Manar University. “It was about freedom and liberty inside the campus.”
Yanalou and other UGTE leaders said union activities don’t focus on religious issues but instead center on aspects of student life such as opening new campus restaurants and procuring scholarships for the less privileged.
“Outside the union there are people who think we should separate genders on buses, separate genders in classes,” Abdallah said. “There are some things in the curriculum against sharia.”
“But we as a union do not want restrictions,” he said. “We are for the best interests of the students.”
Its rivals, however, disagree.
“I don’t think UGTE helps people or satisfies the demands of what students want,” said Maalaoui Maher, a member of the leftist-leaning union UGET. “It is a representative of Ennahda [the moderate Islamist political party] and they are using force and violence.”
The tensions among the student unions, which play an important role in society, highlight wider divisions. But Tunisians seem to desire an inclusive political process, positioning the country on a path to a deeper democracy.