The efforts by Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a national unity government and lead the state to an election have made Islamists hopeful about their chances to participate in the elections legally, as an independent party.

Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahdha, Tunisia's main Islamist party, has lived in exile in London since 1989. He has announced that he plans to return to his homeland, and he may be in a position to do so without risk. But the road between his return and an Islamist takeover of the country is a long and rocky one.

Before Tunisia's Islamic movement, a descendant of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, can gain entry to the parliament it must first see to amending the law prohibiting it from political activity.

This is a major obstacle. While Islam is the state religion, according to the constitution, the law forbids religion-based parties. The movement also suffers from internal divisions, and it is believed to have the support of 15 percent or less of the Tunisian public.

In the year following the November 1987 coup that brought ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to power, he freed all the leaders of Ennahdha from prison and allowed them to stand in parliamentary elections.

But their harsh opposition to the introduction of laws improving the status of women in Tunisia put them on a collision course that resulted in a clampdown on the Islamists.

Tunisia's eight other parties, which include a number of leftist opposition parties, stand poised to reap much of the political capital that the Islamists may have been able to tap into.

In a recent interview to the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Rached Ghannouchi said that Ennahdha did not initiate the civil revolt. He said it was a joint effort with the country's secular parties, and stressed that he will not run for president.

On his Facebook page, Ghannouchi wrote that his party adopted the laws on the status of women as early as 1988 and that his movement supports the revolution and hopes that the new regime will be democratic and will respect human rights.

Enlightened views

But these enlightened views do not necessarily reflect the young generation of Tunisian Islamists who suffered under the iron fist of the dictatorship, politically, religiously and economically. The concern is that some of them will take their underground activities a step further and adopt a model similar to that of Islamic extremists in Algeria. If that happens, the Tunisian authorities will benefit from the country's smaller size and population, compared to Algeria, and the tight control of the security forces.

The more rapidly the new prime minister can form a government, break up the monopolies controlled by relatives of Ben Ali and implement democratic reforms, particularly in the area of freedom of expression, the more he will be able to neutralize the influence of extremist organizations.