The Mainstreaming of Tunisia’s Islamists

The Ennahda Party’s latest moves put its political astuteness on show once again.

Supporters of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha Party wearing the national and party flags arrive on May 20, 2016 to attend the opening of Ennahdha's three-day congress in Tunis.
Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony of the congress -- the first since 2012 -- held at a sports complex in Rades, south of the capital Tunis, amid heavy police security. / AFP / FETHI BELAID        (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha Party wearing the national and party flags arrive on May 20, 2016 to attend the opening of Ennahdha's three-day congress in Tunis. Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony of the congress -- the first since 2012 -- held at a sports complex in Rades, south of the capital Tunis, amid heavy police security. / AFP / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)


In May, the leader of the largest party in Tunisia’s parliament made a dramatic announcement. “There is no longer any justification for political Islam in Tunisia,” said Rached Ghannouchi, explaining why his Ennahda Party decided to distance itself from its Islamist origins and recast itself as a political vehicle for “Muslim democrats.”

Experts immediately jumped on the story, eager to understand why one of the few successful Islamist movements in the Arab world would opt to de-emphasize the very philosophy that served as its defining characteristic in the years following the 2011 revolution.

Many of these commentaries have missed the point. On closer examination, Ennahda’s decision to jettison “political Islam” has far less to do with Islam than it does with politics. Judging by its program, its actions, and the people who run it, Ghannouchi’s party remains a conservative Islamic party. That hasn’t really changed. What Ennahda’s carefully orchestrated rebranding demonstrates, however, is just how skillfully its leaders continue to adapt to the changing landscape of Tunisian electoral politics.

Map of northern Tunisia

To understand this fully requires 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 activists. Ben Ali — just like his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first president — had pursued a hardline secularism that shut Islam out of politics. Anyone who promoted the idea of Islamic governance was arrested, killed, or driven out of the country. Even a thick beard could land you in police custody.

Among those bearing the brunt of official ill favor was Ghannouchi himself, who ended up spending 22 years in European exile. He returned home within weeks after Ben Ali’s fall and immediately rebuilt the party into a formidable electoral force. In the lead-up to the first national election in October 2011, Ennahda ran a well-organized campaign that helped it secure the plurality of seats in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), a transitional parliament tasked with drafting Tunisia’s new constitution.

From the start, though, Ennahda’s leaders had to take into account the fact that a large part of Tunisian society remained devoted to the secularist values aired by the old regime’s leading politicians and that they regarded the new ruling party and its aims with suspicion. So, Ghannouchi and his colleagues were careful to market their ideology as one of moderation. Even after its success in the elections, Ennahda formed a governing coalition with the parties that finished as first and second runners-up. This conciliatory approach was one it would maintain in the years ahead, even with its staunchest political opponents.

Inevitably, though, Ennahda also made mistakes. When one of its legislators proposed enshrining Sharia as the main source of Tunisian law, the resulting public outcry forced Ghannouchi to retract the proposal publicly. The party’s critics accused it of going soft on religious extremists, which, they said, made it responsible for mounting political violence.

All this, coupled with an economic slowdown, encouraged many Tunisians, particularly among the country’s secularist elite, to reject the party. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Ennahda was defeated by Nidaa Tounes, a secular party launched in 2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi, who had served in the administrations of both Ben Ali and Bourguiba. Essebsi is now Tunisia’s president, underscoring the extent to which the opponents of political Islam continue to dominate the political scene.

Generally speaking, 2014 was not a good moment for Islamism. In July 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which had been democratically elected in 2012, was deposed in a military coup strongly supported by secularist Egyptians — prompting Ennahda activists to wonder if they might be next. The rise of the Islamic State, which continues to boast a startling number of Tunisians in its ranks, compounded the perception that Ennahda had been too lax about security and further undermined the public reputation of political Islam. These developments confronted party leaders with the realization that, no matter how “moderate” Ennahda appeared, entire swathes of the Tunisian electorate would reject its participation in politics point-blank.

All this helps to explain why Ennahda has decided to downplay its origins in “political Islam.” Yet to depict that move as an across-the-board rejection of religious politics would be misleading. A large segment of Tunisia’s population, especially outside the relatively cosmopolitan capital, still yearns to see a government infused with Islamic values. Ennahda’s followers in the poorer and more conservative interior continue to view it as a political force that represents them, regardless of its careful ideological recalibrations. When Ghannouchi announced the move away 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 this allows party leaders to focus on politics in the capital while other members in the provinces continue to engage in the civic and religious spheres. By some accounts, Ennahda is already far more engaged in preparations for the municipal elections set for next spring than any other political party — raising the possibility that it could end up dominating grassroots politics while its competitors remain focused on maneuverings in the capital. In this respect, the May decision can be seen as Ennahda’s latest attempt to cater to the country’s diverse population and sustain itself as a major political force as Tunisia consolidates its new democracy.

“You often hear people saying that Ennahda, as a religious entity, is contrary to the Tunisian way of life — that Tunisians are revolting against Ennahda,” says political analyst Youssef Cherif. But, he noted, that’s not true for everyone. In fact, he said, “there are as many people whose vision of society, whose way of life is more conservative, less liberal, less Western, and that segment of the population is not to be ignored.” It’s these voters who form Ennahda’s base, and it remains focused on earning their loyalty. At the same time, by moderating its image among the urban, secular elite in and around Tunis, Ghannouchi’s party is also striving to overcome the deep divide between capital and hinterland. “Ennahda may not seduce its opponents,” said Cherif, “but it’ll 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 move beyond ideology. She couched the decision as a response to a grievance widely held among the public: While politicians in parliament agonize over the merits or pitfalls of religion in politics, ordinary folks languish without jobs. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Ennahda has kept up with the turbulence of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary era by showing a remarkable capacity for pragmatism, capitulating on certain tenants of its Islamist ideology and entering coalitions with rivals in order to keep the democratic transition afloat.

Indeed, despite the party’s failures and compromises, for many Tunisian voters there’s still no alternative to Ennahda — just as, for many others, there is no alternative to Nidaa Tounes, which has become a prominent political force despite its connections to the deposed 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 policy debate. What it does guarantee 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 from Tunisia: In Sun and Shadow:
Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion:The dawn of democracy is something to root for — but the forces that have pulled the other Arab Spring countries back into upheaval still threaten to undo its progress.
A Verdict on Change: This ambitious young judge wants to change Tunisia’s justice system. But he still has to type out his own verdicts.
The Storyteller: Shukrii Mabkhout is not just a novelist — he’s the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Missing the Old Days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
El Khadra Still Can’t Breathe: This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one’s listening.
Not Arab, and Proud of It: Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
The Tourism Crash: Terrorist attacks have left the sector reeling — but its problems actually go much deeper..
Crisis of Governance: Local Edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And that’s a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
Tunisia’s Dying Jazz: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
Terms of Abuse: On paper, Tunisia’s revolution has boosted legal protections for women. Yet the reality is starkly different.
Five Years of the New Tunisia: From revolution to disillusionment and back again: Milestones on Tunisia’s rocky path to democracy.
Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?

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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