Islamists’ New Political Orientations in Post-Revolution Tunisia
Islamists’ New Political Orientations in Post-Revolution Tunisia
Insight into the growing role of Al-Nadha in Tunisia, its political standing, challenges, strengths and its place in the changing political atmosphere of the Middle East.
The First Steps towards Democracy
For 23 years, the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali eliminated opposition forces in Tunisia. The increasing corruption, unemployment, and injustice led to the first revolution of the twenty-first century and ended the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. After the spontaneous and popular revolution, different components of civil society, political parties, and experts banded together to form the Higher Authority for the Realization of Revolutionary Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition (Higher Authority), on February 18. The major consensus within the Higher Authority called for the creation of a new constitution by an elected assembly, called the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), instead of organizing presidential elections based on the old constitution.
The interim government created the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) on April 18. The Higher Authority elected its members to organize free and fair elections. A few weeks later, the IEC Chairman Kamel Jendoubi stated on behalf of the commission that the NCA elections could not be organized before October 16. The interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi responded to this demand on June 8 by postponing the date of elections to October 23.
That date is swiftly approaching, and Tunisians are lost between the different parties. Theycannot understand and compare the different parties’ ideologies in the few months left before the election. The revolution has produced contradictory political orientations. Communists, Islamists, and secularists all consider the new political field to be a rare and golden opportunity to make their ideologies felt in Tunisia. The upcoming NCA elections thus represent a gauge of the influence of each party.
The interim government has legalized some previously prohibited movements and authorized dozens of new parties to participate in the political life. The increase of the parties’ number is incredible; compared to ten before the revolution, there are now more than 100.Among the more famous parties, Al-Nahdha (Renaissance) seems to be widely influencing the political landscape in Tunisia.
Al-Nahdha: From an illegal movement to a legalized party
Al-Nahdha was founded as an Islamic movement in 1981 by Rashid Ghannouchi and other intellectuals inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood doctrines. The movement has long been accused of extremism and terrorism, especially after the incidents in the early 1990s when a Constitutional Democratic Rally office was attacked in the capital and an officer was burned. Al-Nahdha activists were also said to have thrown acid in the faces of a number of pedestrians.
The movement was not allowed to pursue its activities. About 30,000 activists and Islamists were arrested in the 1990s and many others went into exile. Ghannouchi chose voluntary exile in London in 1989. In 1992, a Tunisian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment. Thanks to the popular revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s regime, Ghannouchi came back from exile in January 30, taking advantage of the national reconciliation and general amnesty. One month later, Al-Nahdha was officially legalized and became an authorized party after over 20 years of suspension.
Tunisians were surprised by the crowds welcoming Sheikh Ghannouchi at the Tunis Carthage airport after 22 years in exile. They were even more surprised by Al-Nahdha’s popularity and organizational capacities. The party has rapidly recuperated its networks and activists. An increasing number of men in the streets of Tunisia sport long beards. In some regions, Al-Nahdha’s meetings have been held in large venues such as football stadiums. Al-Nahdha also succeeded in joining the High Authority to participate in the first steps of political reforms.
However, criticisms against Al-Nahdha abound. The shock of old incidents still resonates today, and Ghannouchi has recently admitted that his party members have made mistakes in the past. In addition, the achievements of the country in modernity, gender equality, and secularism drive many people to reject Al-Nahdha with its conservative, religious agenda. The question of Al-Nahdha’s political success remains.
Al-Nahdha’s Potential Success
The political future of Al-Nahdha can be analyzed more clearly through the determination of its strengths, opportunities, and challenges.
The Islamic character represents the main force of the party in a country where 98% of citizens are Sunni Muslims. Religious discourse is always more influential than political discussion. The mosques are used by Al-Nahdha’s members to meet, mobilize, and communicate. During recent years, many Tunisians have been influenced by Islamic TV channels and have experienced an increase in religiosity. Al-Nahdha seems poised to meet their needs, especially after the end of the anti-Islamic regime of Ben Ali.
Al-Nahdha is famous in Tunisia and abroad, whereas most of its rivals are either less known or products of the revolution. Ghannouchi’s party’s popularity in certain regions, especially in the south, facilitates its activities and organization. Al-Nahdha also has substantial financial resources, proved by its large current expenditures. Not only Islamists are contributing to the party’s bank accounts; some businessmen (in tourism, for example) are also financially supporting Al-Nahdha to protect their businesses if the party gained power. Moreover, many Arab and Islamic countries like Qatar support Al-Nahdha. The television channel Al Jazeera, which broadcasts from Qatar, has supported Sheikh Rashid for many years.
Since the majority of political parties were formed after the revolution and lack widespread popularity, the current situation is an opportunity for Al-Nahdha to dominate the political landscape. Furthermore, some parties wish to ally with Al-Nahdha to achieve better results in the elections.
Al-Nahdha is preparing, by specialized committees, its new electoral program. In this context, analysts have noticed a big change in party rhetoric. Al-Nahdha leaders have pronounced new orientations based on democracy, openness and tolerance, with references to moderate Islam.
The success of the Justice and Development Party (DPT) in secular Turkey plays into Ghannouchi’s hands; the Sheikh stated that Al-Nahdha and the DPT are alike, both representing moderate Islamist parties.
To demonstrate its flexibility, Al-Nahdha leaders said that their party would participate in the legislative elections but would not necessarily present a presidential candidate. Rashid Ghannouchi himself said he would not run for any elected office.
The main challenges
In the coming period, the big challenge for the party is to improve its image. As mentioned above, Al-Nahdha has been considered a terrorist group, but recently it is facing a bigger problem after the unexpected emergence of new Salafi movements, particularly Hizb al-Tahrir. These movements are currently illegal because of their extremism and anti-Semitism. The fear of fundamentalist Salafism puts Al-Nahdha in a complex situation because it risks being confused withSalafism, which is rejected by Tunisians.
The second issue is related to women’s rights. Since the independence in 1956, Tunisian women have been proud of their legal gains and rights, which are protected by law. For the Arab countries, Tunisia represents a model of gender equality. It is the only country that prohibits polygamy. Consequently, Tunisian women will not accept losing their rights. Al-Nahdha has announced its respect for women’s achievements, whereas Islam, the reference of the party, continues to allow polygamy. This paradox seems not to bother the party, which seems ready to sacrifice some ideological principles to display its modernity and attract the masses.
The external challenge for al-Nahdha is reconciliation with the West. Europe is worried about the power of Islamists after the “Jasmine Revolution”. To allay European fears, Rachid Ghannouchi visited France on April 22 and clearly stated his opposition to extremism. Alain Juppé, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs said “We need to talk, share our ideas with those who respect the rules of democracy and of course the fundamental principle of refusing violence". Al-Nahdha has thus seen some success in its campaign to reduce European fears by presenting its respect for Western values and modernity.
Although the United States seems more interested in the outcome of Egypt’s revolution, al-Nahdha sees itself as a potential solution to radical Islam in the Middle East. In other words, a moderate party like Al-Nahdha will call for tolerance and deter Muslims from terrorism. Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 started a new phase for the US relations with the Islamic world. The American President at that time admired the Turkish model of Islam, known for its moderation. Since 2005, Al-Nahdha leaders have presented themselves to William J Hudson, the US Ambassadorin Tunisia, as moderate Islamists. But will Al-Nahdha keep its promises?
Al-Nahdha Electoral Program
Although Al-Nahdha is still preparing its electoral program, the main planks have been determined. The main trends relate to three key areas: foreign relations, women’s rights, and the separation of religion and state.
First, according to party leadership, foreign policy would be determined politically and economically according to Tunisia’s position in the Maghreb and the Arab world. To reduce unemployment and poverty, economic integration would be emphasized. Al-Nahdha would respect Tunisia’s obligations with the European Union, Tunisia’s primary economic partner. Furthermore, Al-Nahdha would try to improve the relations with Europe and the United States as well.
Second, Al-Nahdha aims to protect women’s rights and ensure female participation in political and public life in harmony with the principle of citizenship and gender equality. The family represents the backbone of society, so the party would activate the family’s preventive, educational, and social role. The party does not have any intention to modify the code of personal status, which organizes the familial relationships and deals with matters of marriage and divorce. Al-Nahdha considers the code to be Islamic jurisprudence and does not accept revision (especially the prohibition of polygamy) for political gain.
Third, Al-Nahdha supports the article of the Tunisian constitution which states that Islam is the state religion. However, the role of the state is to respect its citizens without intervening in their beliefs. The party also calls for distinguishing between religious activities and political life.
The Consequence of Al-Nahdha’s Potential Success
Many parties are still scrambling to prepare for the NCA elections of October 24, whereas Al-Nahdha has already flaunted its organizational strength, popularity, and coherence. Predictions give the party a large chance to win many seats and influence the choice of the new political model and the general orientation of the country. Tunisia would be an Islamic country but democratic as well, according to the party commitment.
In this context, Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi declared on May 30 on a private radio that Tunisia cannot change the fundamentals of the state; only the political system can itself change gradually towards democracy. “The country’s agreements and contracts with other countries will be respected. We do not have problems with Europe and the United States,” he said. He also confirmed his party's openness to other ideologies. He concluded that, with Al-Nahdha, Tunisia would be a democratic country with an Islamic backdrop.
Across the region, Islamists stand to play a political role not only in Tunisia but also in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhoodhas similar opportunities and orientations. In addition, rebels in Libya and Yemen are dominated by Islamist movements. Therefore, the emergence of Al-Nahdha stands to shape the future of the Arab political landscape. The debates are more likely to be about economics than about military and defense. In fact, the rigidity of the Islamists is expected to harm the foreign investment, tourism, banking, and thus inhibit the economic growth and development of Arabs. Some experts predict this to be the cause of big economic losses, but this argument is disputable. Arab unity can be considered a measure of economic success. Islamists only threaten prosperity when they are suppressed and not allowed to participate in the political life; an Islamic party like Al-Nahdha would certainly assume the responsibility to play a positive role.
In Tunisia, the adoption of moderate Islamism or “soft Islam” that respects democracy and rule of law would not represent any threat to the economy. The best evidence is the economic growth realized by the Turkish economy under the Islamist government. Rachid Ghannouchi stated that Al-Nahdha has a liberal economic program for Tunisia. In addition, an economic recovery is expected after the end of a corrupt regime that deprived the country of economic growth.
However, we cannot deny the Tunisians' concerns about certain aspects of Al-Nahdha. First, ambiguity still exists among the party members because they give the impression of having differing levels of tolerance. Assuming that the party leaders adopt a liberal strategy, they should condition all intraparty groups to the new orientation. Second, while Al-Nahdha may keep good relationships with the West, it would probably build stronger relations with other Muslimcountries like Qatar and the UAE.
In any case, Al-Nahdha’s choice of modernity and tolerance is surprising its electorate and its rival parties. Al-Nahdha has only to prove its credibility concerning its new moderate trend. However, what guarantees the good intentions of Al-Nahdha?
As can be expected, many people doubt that Al-Nahdha will abandon some Islamic principles for only short-term political gains. However, this would be a big mistake, since everyone now has realized the potential of street power after the revolution that ended the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali. Tunisians will not yield to any manipulation; they are ready to return to the street if necessary. Al-Nahdha has no choice but to reconcile between the Islamists’ aspirations and the secularists’ requirements.