How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy

The Ennahda party was widely seen as a threat to Tunisia's democratic transition. Instead, it helped drive it forward.

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Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Tunisia to attend the country’s National Dialogue on Employment and offered warm praise to the country’s president, Beji Caid Esssebsi, congratulating him on its “democratic progress.”

Tunisia has indeed made formidable progress in consolidating its democracy — the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring — since a popular uprising toppled its longtime strongman, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011. But a close look at Tunisia’s democratic transition reveals that much of the credit should go to the country’s largest Islamist party, Ennahda, and its willingness to embrace compromise with secular political forces.

In so doing, the party has often had to adjust its positions — sometimes clumsily — in response to pressure from voters. In fact, over the course of its time in government, it was forced to abandon the most religious aspects of its ideology. While defending elements of its Islamist bent, Ennahda behaved rationally, reneging on positions that it realized weren’t palatable to important constituencies, but hanging onto others that were necessary to maintain certain votes. This was particularly clear during Tunisia’s contentious, but ultimately successful, constitution-drafting process.

Such compromises enabled the party to survive in Tunisia’s burgeoning democracy. More importantly, they made a crucial contribution to keeping that democracy afloat. In the end, the behavior of Tunisia’s major Islamist party has played a crucial role in ensuring that the country’s new democracy would survive.

Ennahda’s Islamist character was controversial from the very beginning of the transition. A 2011 general amnesty law allowed the party to return to the political sphere after spending decades underground, its members in hiding or in exile thanks to Ben Ali’s crackdown on Islamist groups. Its new rivals — a smattering of secular parties that never managed to coalesce — immediately framed Ennahda as a major threat to Tunisian democracy, describing its members as “fanatics,” asserting that an Ennahda victory would undermine women’s rights, and denouncing its religious beliefs as either a slippery slope into theocratic rule or a mere ruse to attract voters.

Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s president and co-founder, knew that his party would have to overcome this stigma, and worked to assure Tunisians of its “moderate” nature. For example, in a June 2011 conversation with Middle East political expert Marc Lynch, Ghannouchi recalled having “instructed [the party’s] supporters not to come to the airport to meet him upon his return [to Tunisia] for fear of creating images reminiscent of Khomeini’s return to Iran.”

In the end, Ennahda won Tunisia’s first free elections in October 2011 not on a religious platform, but on its pledge to break with the repressive tactics of the former regime. The party made sure to reach out, in particular, to voters in Tunisia’s underdeveloped and long-neglected interior. In fact, Ennahda was the only party that didn’t structure its campaign solely around religion. To their own detriment, Ennahda’s secular rivals focused excessively on the dangers of its religiosity, and performed poorly as a result.

Reflecting on the time, Sihem Bensedrine, a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist, and the head of Tunisia’s truth and dignity commission, told me in 2014: “Tunisia’s secular parties were, and are, obsessed with their anti-Islamism — a fear that pushes them toward the rhetoric of the former regime. That was their strategic error in 2011: They didn’t recognize that Islamists exist, and that Ben Ali’s fall meant that they would be integrated in our democracy — for the better.”

But after coming into power and being tasked with managing the drafting of the country’s new constitution, Ennahda’s internal contradictions began to come to light. When I interviewed members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in 2013, it became clear that Ennahda’s legislators did not agree on one interpretation of political Islam. And although the party tended to vote as a bloc in the NCA, its fragmentation became visible on numerous occasions, leading some Tunisians to doubt Ghannouchi’s motives and decry the party’s “doublespeak” and hypocrisy.

Just two months into the constitution-drafting process, Ennahda released a draft that included sharia as the primary source of Tunisian law. Criticism from the street and civil society mounted, and Ghannouchi subsequently announced an about-face: sharia would not feature in the charter. But soon thereafter, a party legislator proposed a constitutional provision to criminalize blasphemy.

In yet another twist, party member and soon-to-be Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali publicly referred to Ennahda’s desire — and indeed, its responsibility — to establish a “sixth caliphate” in Tunisia. Uproar ensued on the street, and Jebali retracted his statement days later. These extreme propositions, rectified with subsequent clarifications, revealed a party plagued not only by internal conflict but by the unpopularity of political Islam in Tunisia.

Ennahda’s rivals argued that the party’s back-and-forth on Islam’s place in the constitution was merely a strategic ploy to appear moderate while catering to conservative Salafi voters. But the truth is that Ennahda was a diverse political party that was doing what it could to make sense of its own fractures while seeking to attract various constituencies.

This was evident throughout the constitution-drafting process. In the final rounds voting in January 2014, 22 Ennahda deputies voted to include the Quran and Sunnah as “principle sources of legislation” in the constitution’s first article — but 17 voted against and 39 abstained. Ennahda’s legislators also split 18-15 on a similar amendment that would have made Islam the country’s “principal source of legislation” (46 abstained).

Pushback from Tunisian society, and an uptick in jihadi attacks, also forced Ennahda — eventually — to take a harder line against Islamist violence. To maintain its distance from Ben Ali’s legacy of suppressing Islamist political activity, the party had hesitated to take a firm position against Salafi jihadi groups, even those that promoted violence. While criticizing “rogue elements” within the Salafi movement, Ennahda initially supported its participation in politics and launched a dialogue with some Salafi leaders, encouraging them to pursue their fundamentalist agenda through political means. That reticence to take sides further exemplifies the party’s uncertainty over how to deploy, and the extent to which it should defend, its Islamist ideology. It also fueled sentiments among Tunisian Salafis that Ennahda was pandering to Western and secular interests, and that its Islamist project was little more than window dressing.

Ennahda’s back-and-forth on Salafi groups also provided ammunition for its rivals to attack it as a fundamentalist threat to Tunisia, not a legitimate political player. Following the murder of a Nidaa Tounes politician Lotfi Nagdh in October 2012, Nidaa Tounes leader and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi blamed Ennahda for the killing. After two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, were also assassinated, those rumblings grew into an uproar. Following Belaid’s death in February 2013, 40,000 Tunisians gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to denounce Ennahda’s leadership, labeling Ghannouchi an “assassin.”

Those accusations drove Ennahda to take a stronger stance on Salafi jihadists, notably by designating Ansar al-Sharia — Tunisia’s largest and most popular Salafi jihadist group — a terrorist organization in April 2013. In response to the March 2015 attack on the Bardo National Museum, in which gunmen killed 21 and injured more than 50, Ennahda immediately called for stricter security measures, and did the same when terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State struck a resort in Sousse just three months later.

Ultimately, Ennahda chose to distance itself from Islamist groups it had previously hoped not to alienate. More and more, it began to look like just another member of a political establishment that many allege too-closely resembles its authoritarian predecessor. This illustrates how Tunisia’s political environment, characterized by pervasive security threats, has made the political Islam that Ghannouchi initially envisioned electorally untenable.

In the October 2014 legislative elections, Ennahda lost its parliamentary majority to Nidaa Tounes. Many voters were disappointed that, during its three years of leadership, Ennahda had failed to boost employment, secure Tunisia’s borders, or enact reforms. Ennahda accepted defeat, and, after extensive hesitation on Nidaa Tounes’ part, the two parties formed a coalition government. But Nidaa Tounes became increasingly fractured over the course of 2015, riven by ideological disagreements and a feud over who will succeed its 88-year-old leader. Tensions came to a head in January 2016, when a spate of resignations from Nidaa Tounes left Ennahda with a plurality of parliamentary seats.

For the sake of Tunisia’s political transition, Ennahda has straddled a delicate line of rejecting repression, forging democratic legitimacy, and maintaining the mantle of Islam against those would either pervert or deny it — all while willingly building coalitions with other political parties. This is admirable democratic behavior that is frequently forgotten in critiques of the party’s Islamist ideology, and something that Tunisia’s other parties have done only under great pressure. As the country’s experience has shown, political Islam can indeed be feasible in a democracy, though it will be forced to adapt to the will of the voters, adjust to political circumstances, and likely moderate its initial Islamist vision.

In the photo, a supporter waves the Ennahda Party’s flag during a campaign rally ahead of Tunisia’s October 2014 parliamentary election in Tunis.

Photo credit: FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, April 1, 2016: After January 2016, the Ennahda party ended up with a plurality of parliamentary seats, not a majority, as the article initially said.

Karina Piser is a journalist currently living in New York. Until 2019, she was based in Paris, reporting on religion, national identity, and immigration.
 Twitter: @karinadanielle6

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