The Middle East Channel

The limits of anti-Islamism in Tunisia

Most commentary about the results of Tunisia’s historic election on October 23 has focused on the success of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. With 41.5 percent of seats in the Constitutional Assembly, Ennahda certainly did score an impressive victory. But two other results of equal importance should not be overlooked. Several liberal and leftist parties ...


Most commentary about the results of Tunisia’s historic election on October 23 has focused on the success of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. With 41.5 percent of seats in the Constitutional Assembly, Ennahda certainly did score an impressive victory. But two other results of equal importance should not be overlooked. Several liberal and leftist parties also did well, giving strong representation to the major political trends in the forthcoming assembly. And even more striking, the parties that banked upon an explicitly anti-Islamist campaign message lost badly.

By any standard, Tunisia’s elections marked a crucial step toward the institutionalization of democracy in a country that has endured decades of dictatorship. The peaceful and orderly process of holding elections sets an important regional precedent. But the election campaign exposed an important rift between Islamists and secularists that will have enduring effects on Tunisian politics. How the new assembly and the competing political forces deal with those issues will be decisive in determining whether the elections now pave the way for a genuine democratic transition.

Ennahda’s performance demonstrated its very real strength across the country. Although Ennahda’s share of the popular vote was lower in many districts given the number of "wasted" votes for parties that failed to win seats, the results clearly show that Islamists have significant appeal across the country — not just in the poor and marginalized districts of the south and west but also in the wealthier, more developed coastal areas. Ennahda has enjoyed widespread legitimacy because its members were the most repressed under Ben Ali’s rule, particularly in the 1990s when many in its leadership and rank and file endured torture and long prison sentences. The party is also viewed as honest and not corrupt, a perception that holds a lot of weight in light of the abuses of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families. As many Tunisians told me, "They are not thieves."

However, Ennahda is not the only actor in Tunisian politics that is seen as honest, and there are other elements that contributed to the party’s success. Key figures in Ettakatol or the Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés (FDTL), the Congrés pour la République (CPR), and the Pôle Démocratique Moderniste (PDM), among other parties and political figures, also enjoy "clean" reputations. Ennahda also ran an extremely professional and effective campaign, with a ground game that put its rivals to shame. When I asked Ennahda officials how they managed to develop an extensive grassroots presence in Tunisia in a short time period and despite decades of exile, imprisonment, and repression, they replied, "We were always there." Neighborhood residents have known Ennahda supporters for decades, and were impressed by their good behavior, honest dealings with other citizens, and commitment to their principles. Furthermore, the message of Ennahda resonates broadly in the population. Clearly, religion and apparent respect for Islam matters to many Tunisians, and Ennahda benefited from this, particularly in light of perceived attacks on religious values in the weeks leading up to the elections.

The second-ranked party, the CPR, gained about 14 percent of the seats and the third-ranked party, Ettakatol, received about 10 percent of the seats in the assembly. Fourth place went to Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi’s Aridha Chaabiya, or Popular Petition, list (at the time of this writing, it remained unclear whether the disqualification of parts of that list for alleged campaign violations would stand). Based in London, Hamdi is a former member of Ennahda who split from the party and apparently had some dealings with Ben Ali. Despite almost no local media coverage during the campaign, Hamdi’s lists won 19 seats, allegedly because he appealed to voters in his own region of the historically marginalized south and because he promised lavish social benefits.

The elections highlighted and heightened the apparent Islamist-secularist cleavage in contemporary Tunisia. The vote for the members of the Constitutional Assembly was presented by some secularists and Ennahda officials alike as akin to a referendum on the cultural identity of the country. In the months leading up to the elections, secularists expressed their fears about the prospect of an Ennahda victory, claiming that the party’s leadership continually engage in "double speak" by failing to present strong positions defending free expression and women’s rights and by craftily concealing a longer-term agenda to impose "sharia law" on Tunisia. In the campaign’s closing days, the Parti Démocratique Progressiste (PDP) aired an inflammatory advertisement warning about the extreme measures that Ennahda would supposedly impose on the "Day After" its election.

The recent outcry following the airing of the film "Persepolis" on Nessma TV, a private television station, likely worked in favor of Ennahda and hurt those parties, such as the PDP and PDM, which defended the station’s right to show the film and, by extension, the right to free speech even when it offends the religious sensibilities of some people. Although Ennahda leaders renounced the acts of violence against the home of Nessma’s owner, they remained opposed to the station’s decision to air the film, which includes a visual depiction of God, as an affront to religion. This position likely appealed to a portion of the electorate. Ennahda supporters often claim that Tunisian secularists espouse foreign values and aim to impose their own, alien vision of society on what is at base a more conservative society.

In the end, the parties that played the anti-Ennahda card most vehemently lost while those that presented themselves as more tolerant and open to possible coalitions with the Islamist party performed relatively well. Moncef Marzouki’s CPR and Mustapha Ben Jaafar’s Ettakatol are run by longstanding secular opponents of the Ben Ali regime who chose to adopt a relatively conciliatory tone vis-à-vis Ennahda. As an official fromEttakatol told me, "We don’t attack Ennahda directly because everyone who cares about religion will think we’re against religion and that only Ennahda defends it." But Ahmed Néjib Chebbi’s PDP and the secular leftist PDM both rejected an alliance with Ennahda and made opposition to the Islamist party a key part of their platforms. These two parties fared poorly in the elections with 17 and 5 seats out of 217 in the assembly, respectively.

These mutual suspicions have characterized the post-revolutionary institution building process. From the beginning, Ennahda was concerned that the High Commission for the Fulfillment of Revolutionary Goals, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, which has acted as the main policy making body and selected the electoral rules, was disproportionately staffed by members of leftist and secularist opposing groups. Although Ennahda had representatives in the High Commission, periodic tensions flared up over specific issues and the party ultimately resigned when the body opted to adopt decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. In part to allay its fears that the elections would be rigged, Ennahda placed monitors in each of the more than 7,000 polling stations across the country. Based on information gathered from its extensive network of representatives at the ballot boxes, the party preemptively announced its victory less than one day after the elections and well before the official results were released. At a press conference held by the National Democratic Institute held the day after the elections, Said Ferjani, a member of the party’s political bureau, told me and several journalists a fairly precise estimate of the number of seats and margin of victory that the party would obtain, even as candidates from other parties emphasized on television talk shows that the votes were not yet tallied.

While Islamists have feared that transitional governing institutions were stacked against them, their secularist opponents now worry that Ennahda will use its newfound power to impose its social and religious agenda on Tunisians and, therefore, they will lose their hard-won liberties as well as the rights bestowed on women under the dictatorship. The split between Islamists and secularists is the defining issue of Tunisian society and politics at this juncture and, with such deep-seated mutual suspicions and seemingly irreconcilable positions on what constitutes "free speech" and liberties, it is difficult to see how a resolution can be achieved.

The election results most directly affect the composition of the new government and the process of writing new rules of the game. It is almost axiomatic in politics that victors aim to rewrite the rules in their favor. The relative weights of the different parties and their respective preferences for the design of executive institutions and electoral laws will therefore shape the structure of the new governing system. But Ennahda has demonstrated considerable sensitivity to the fears it provokes in the West and at home. Ennahda claims that it is open to negotiations with all willing partners and, even before the results were officially announced, established alliances with other parties elected to the assembly. This may reassure some of its critics that the Islamist party will not fully dominate the process of writing the new constitution.

Ennahda claims that it is a moderate party along the lines of the Turkish Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi (AKP). Indeed, the intellectual foundations of the two parties are intertwined — leaders of the AKP were apparently inspired by the work of Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the Ennahda party leader, whose writings emphasize the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Nonetheless, the AKP analogy does not reassure Ennahda’s staunchest opponents who claim that the Kemalist legacy of secularism, constitutional guarantees, and the prospect of accession to the EU put automatic constraints on the Turkish Islamist party that are not present in Tunisia. The AKP’s growing control over the media and different branches of government give some Tunisian secularists further misgivings about the AKP model. Bridging this deep divide and building trust between Islamists and secularists will require continuous dialogue and debate over the long-term.

The Constitutional Assembly will now appoint a government to run the everyday affairs of the country, in addition to taking responsibility for drafting a new constitution. Ennahda leaders have repeatedly stated that they do not wish to hold a majority in the assembly, in part because they will be all the more vulnerable to popular criticisms if they fail to deliver quick improvements to living conditions and to address the crises of youth unemployment and regional disparities in Tunisia. The new government will need to work extremely quickly to install an interim government and write a new constitution while at the same time bringing tangible improvements to people’s lives. Whether it can do so, while avoiding controversial issues that divide Tunisians, will ultimately determine whether the elections should be seen as a success.

Melani Cammett is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at Brown University.

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