Integration of Tunisian Islamists – Foreign Policy


In May, the head of the the biggest party in the Tunisian parliament made a dramatic announcement. “There is no longer any justification for political Islam in Tunisia”, noted Rached Ghannouchi, explaining why his Ennahda party has decided to distance itself from its Islamist origins and to redefine itself as a political vehicle for “”muslim democrats. “

Pundits immediately jumped on the story, eager to understand why one of the few successful Islamist movements in the Arab world would choose to downplay the very philosophy that served as a defining feature in the years following the 2011 revolution.


In May, the head of the the biggest party in the Tunisian parliament made a dramatic announcement. “There is no longer any justification for political Islam in Tunisia”, noted Rached Ghannouchi, explaining why his Ennahda party has decided to distance itself from its Islamist origins and to redefine itself as a political vehicle for “”muslim democrats. “

Pundits immediately jumped on the story, eager to understand why one of the few successful Islamist movements in the Arab world would choose to downplay the very philosophy that served as a defining feature in the years following the 2011 revolution.

Many of these comments missed the point. To take a closer look, Ennahda’s decision to get rid of “political Islam” has much less to do with Islam than with politics. Judging by its program, its actions and the people who run it, Ghannouchi’s party remains a conservative Islamic party. It hasn’t really changed. What Ennahda’s carefully orchestrated rebranding demonstrates, however, is how skillfully its leaders continue to adapt to the changing landscape of Tunisian electoral politics.


Map of northern Tunisia

To fully understand this, it takes a bit of insight into Tunisia‘s post-revolutionary history. The fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and the subsequent transition to a democratic system immediately opened up obvious and unprecedented opportunities for Islamist militants. Ben Ali – like his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first president – had pursued an uncompromising secularism that excluded Islam from politics. Anyone who promoted the idea of ​​Islamic governance has been arrested, killed or driven out of the country. Even a thick beard could get you into custody.

Among those who paid the price for the official bad grace was Ghannouchi himself, who ended up spending 22 years in European exile. He returned home a few weeks after the fall of Ben Ali and immediately rebuilt the party into a formidable electoral force. As the first national elections approached in October 2011, Ennahda waged a well-organized campaign that helped him secure multiple seats in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), a transitional parliament tasked with drafting the new constitution. Tunisian.

From the start, however, Ennahda leaders had to take into account that a large part of Tunisian society remained attached to the secular values ​​conveyed by the main politicians of the old regime and that they considered the new party to be power and its goals with suspicion. So, Ghannouchi and his colleagues were careful to market their ideology as an ideology of moderation. Even after her election success, Ennahda formed a governing coalition with the parties that finished first and second finalists. This conciliatory approach was one she will maintain in the years to come, even with her fiercest political opponents.

Inevitably, however, Ennahda also made mistakes. When one of its lawmakers proposed to include Sharia law as the main source of Tunisian law, the resulting outcry forced Ghannouchi to publicly withdraw his proposal. Critics of the party accused him of being lenient towards religious extremists, which they say blamed him for the rise in political violence.

All of this, coupled with an economic slowdown, has encouraged many Tunisians, especially among the country’s secular elite, to reject the party. In the 2014 legislative elections, Ennahda was defeated by Nidaa Tounes, a secular party launched in 2012 by Beji Caïd Essebsi, who had served in the administrations of Ben Ali and Bourguiba. Essebsi is now President of Tunisia, stressing how opponents of political Islam continue to dominate the political scene.

Overall, 2014 was not a good time for Islamism. In July 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which had been democratically elected in 2012, was overthrown in a military coup strongly supported by secular Egyptians – prompting Ennahda activists wonder if they could be next. The rise of the Islamic State, which continues to boast an impressive number of Tunisians in its ranks, aggravated the perception that Ennahda had been too lax on security matters and further undermined the public reputation of political Islam. These developments confronted party leaders with the realization that no matter how “moderate” Ennahda appeared to be, entire sections of the Tunisian electorate would categorically reject her participation in politics.

All of this helps to explain why Ennahda decided to downplay its origins in “political Islam”. Yet to describe this movement as a widespread rejection of religious politics would be misleading. Much of the Tunisian population, especially outside the relatively cosmopolitan capital, still aspires to a government steeped in Islamic values. Ennahda’s supporters in the poorer, more conservative interior continue to view him as a political force that represents them, regardless of his cautious ideological recalibrations. When Ghannouchi announced the exit from traditional Islamism, he also proclaimed a separation of the party’s political and religious activities.

What many observers have failed to note is that it allows party leaders to focus on politics in the capital while other members in the provinces continue to engage in civic and religious spheres. According to some accounts, Ennahda is already much more engaged in preparations for the municipal elections slated for next spring than any other political party – suggesting that it could end up dominate popular politics while its competitors remain focused on maneuvers in the capital. In this regard, May’s decision can be seen as Ennahda’s latest attempt to meet the needs of the country’s diverse population and maintain itself as a major political force as Tunisia consolidates its new democracy.

“You often hear people say that Ennahda, as a religious entity, is contrary to the Tunisian way of life – that Tunisians revolt against Ennahda,” explains political scientist Youssef Cherif. But, he noted, this is not true for everyone. In fact, he said, “there are so many people whose vision of society, whose way of life is more conservative, less liberal, less Western, and this segment of the population is not at risk. ignore ”. It is these voters who form the base of Ennahda, and it remains focused on loyalty. At the same time, by moderating its image with the urban and secular elite of Tunis and its surroundings, Ghannouchi’s party is also striving to overcome the deep divide between the capital and the hinterland. “Ennahda may not appeal to its opponents,” Cherif said, “but that will at least calm them down.”

When I asked Ennahda’s international spokesperson Yusra Ghannouchi about the rebranding, she chose to stress the need for the party – and Tunisia – to go beyond ideology. She framed the decision as a response to a widely held public grievance: While politicians in parliament agonize over the merits or pitfalls of religion in politics, ordinary people languish without a job. As I have explained elsewhere, Ennahda followed the turbulence of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary era by demonstrating a remarkable capacity for pragmatism, capitulating to certain supporters of its Islamist ideology and entering into coalitions with rivals. in order to keep the democratic transition afloat.

Indeed, despite the party’s failures and compromises, for many Tunisian voters there is still no alternative to Ennahda – just as, for many others, there is no alternative to Nidaa Tounes, who has emerged as a leading political force despite its ties to the fallen dictatorship and its own internal fractures.

It remains to be seen whether Ennahda’s formal division between political and religious activities will generate a more concrete and effective political debate. What it guarantees is that, for the foreseeable future, Tunisia’s not-so-Islamic Islamists will remain a political force to be reckoned with.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID / AFP / Getty Images

Read more about Tunisia: In the sun and in the shade:
The Glorious Confusion of Tunisia:The dawn of democracy is something to take root – but the forces that plunged other Arab Spring countries into turmoil still threaten to undo its progress.
A verdict on the change: This ambitious young judge wants to change Tunisian justice. But he still has to type his own verdicts.
The narrator: Shukrii Mabkhout is not only a novelist, he is the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Miss the old days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here is a man who still mourns the old regime.
El Khadra still cannot breathe: This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one is listening.
Not Arab, and proud of it: The long repressed Tunisian Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
The tourism crash: Terrorist attacks have rocked the industry – but its problems are actually much deeper.
Governance crisis: local edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And this is a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
The dying jazz of Tunisia: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Problem in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a smuggler’s paradise. The locals would like it to be that way.
Conditions of abuse: On paper, the Tunisian revolution strengthened legal protections for women. However, the reality is quite different.
Five years of the new Tunisia: From revolution to disillusion and vice versa: milestones on Tunisia’s rocky road to democracy.
Tunisia’s war against Islam: Is the overzealous pursuit of the war on terrorism contributing to radicalization?

About Wesley V. Finley

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