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Ennahda

Since Tunisians overthrew former president Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011, its transition to democracy has been pointed to as a shining example in contrast to more tenuous situations in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. While the elections for its constituent assembly went off without a hitch in October 2011, the past six months have proven far more contentious and difficult. A political, economic, and security malaise has cast a shadow over the prospects of a Tunisia living up to its expectation of providing a positive pathway to the rest of the region for transitioning to first stable and most progressive Arab democratic state.

Although many have worried about the rise in Salafism in Tunisia, there have been more immediate concerns over the shape and contours surrounding Tunisia’s future political arrangements. The constitution that was originally to be finished this October, a year after the elections has been reported will now be moved back to March 2013. Tunisian officials have yet to change the date of the next parliamentary elections, which are supposed to be at the same time as the completion of the constitution in March. Campaigning while completing a document that will provide the framework for Tunisia’s future is not the most effective way to secure a reasonable and non-politicized document.

Most troubling about the process of writing the constitution as well as developing a competitive political system is the fraying of secular and liberal parties. Party defections and individuals quitting their parties have decimated the two parties, CPR and Ettaktol, whom are in a coalition with the leading Islamist party Ennahda. This has put a wrench in the ability for these groups to apply pressure from the left to moderate Ennahda’s position. Without it, Ennahda has only had to worry about its right flank: the more conservative Islamist and Salafis parties Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the less moderate elements within its own party.

Without a strong secular and liberal opposition the idea of a moderate Islamist party becomes less likely when the only true challenge comes from the right. The failure of the secular/liberals to unite has created such an opening for Islamists. The controversial insertions in the draft of the constitution, which would criminalize blasphemy and limit the rights of women, are the first examples of what might be in store without a strong left-leaning opposition. While some might point to the preamble not including language about shari’a being source of law, Ennahda understands that it does not need it in the constitution because the process of gradual Islamization will take care of it overtime.

Questions surrounding whether Ennahda is up to the task of governing the country and providing a more robust economic future has also come under scrutiny. Many voted for Ennahda due to the belief that they would cleanse the government of corruption. Since in power though Ennahda has acted similarly to the prior regime in terms of nepotistic practices versus a meritocratic process in appointing individuals to governmental posts. Further, the economy continues to sputter yet Ennahda has deceptively reported foreign investment figures to make it appear that they have recovered to pre-revolution levels. However, it did not account for the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, which was approximately 20%. So in dollar terms, the foreign investment was considerably less than in 2010, but in nominal terms it showed a modest increase.

Another issue many Tunisians are worried about is the very public rise of Salafi intimidation and vigilantism. While much of it is unconnected to organized parties and associations the lack of accountability in response to actions such as harassment of women over clothing choice, confrontation over alcohol consumption, violence over un-Islamic art, and sectarian attacks over Shi’a and Sufi cultural practices has created an emboldened minority. Unfortunately, members of Ennahda have brushed much of this off as a foreign plot or elements within the former regime trying to arouse provocation. The truth is, Salafism has been in Tunisia since the 1980s, it only now has the ability to express itself openly. It is possible Ennahda is also playing politics since they are concerned they could lose votes in the upcoming election to Jabhat al-Islah or Hizb ut-Tahrir.

These actions though are one of the reasons that hinder secular and liberal politicians activists’ willingness to work with Ennahda. They believe as a result of the lack of response from Ennahda they are complicit. While it is questionable and doubtful that there is some conspiracy, the difference in police response when there are secular/liberal demonstrations in comparison to the lack of response when there are Salafi incidents has created a sense that at the very least Ennahda sympathizes with the Salafi causes.

Further, Ennahda’s counter-response to secular and liberal activists’ demonstrating and complaining about these incidents also raises questions over Ennahda’s ability to truly be a credible partner. If Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and who is viewed as the most moderate of Islamists in the region, is calling his political opponents extremists and enemies of Islam, it is a damning indictment against him, his party, and the notion that moderate Islamism is actually possible once in power.

While there are positive signs that secular and liberal Tunisians are fighting back against this, it is usually in the form of street activism, which does not necessarily translate into electoral or policy successes. The creation of Nida’ Tunis by a former Ben Ali hand Beji Caid el-Sebsi has given some hope that it might unite forces from the Tunisian left. Many are worried thought that because of el-Sebsi’s past it discredits the cause and El-Sebsi’s project is not actually liberal.

The lefts infighting and impotence and Ennahda’s lack of political courage and amateurism have led to an unfortunate state of affairs in Tunisia. Increased political polarization, a stagnant economy, and feelings of insecurity have created a situation in Tunisia where many are worried about the future of the country. It suggests that despite the high hopes regarding Tunisia being an outlier in its transition, it is in fact more in line with the other countries in the region. Tunisia is just not as relatively dysfunctional and there is still a glimmer of hope for a positive outcome. If the current trajectory continues on this course though it does not portend to an optimistic future.

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The legalization and participation of Salafi parties in the democratic process is one of the recent trends to emerge from the Arab uprisings. Like Egypt, which legalized three Salafi parties for its elections, and Yemen, which recently legalized its own Salafi party, Tunisialicensed the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front (Hizb Jabhat al-Islah al-Islamiyya al-Tunisiyya; Jabhat al-Islah for short, or JI) on March 29, 2012.

Previously, the transitional government led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el-Sebsi rejected JI’s demands for official recognition on two separate occasions because of national security concerns. In contrast, the current ruling party, Ennahda, supports the legalization of Salafi groups both because of its own history in the opposition (where it experienced harsh crackdown) and the practical considerations of governing an ideologically polarized country. Ennahda seems to believe that by bringing groups like JI into the system, it can send a clear signal: if one wants to take part in shaping the future of Tunisia, one must buy into the democratic process.

Jabhat al-Islah is clearly attempting to navigate this new terrain and balance Salafi values in simultaneous conformation to new norms. Despite having similar leadership roots to anotherjabha, the Front Islamique Tunisien (FIT)—which advocated terrorism—JI is not inciting youth to wage wars of jihad abroad, nor are they against participation in democratic elections. In fact, members of JI ran for the Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011 as independents and as members of the Tunisian Labor and Reform Front (Jabhat al-‘Amil wal-Islah al-Tunisiyya). JI leader Muhammad al-Khawjah, a former professor at the University of Tunis, explained: “It is no longer the time for armed jihad…we believe Islam is a religion of democracy and freedom.”

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On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements.

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition.

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This past Sunday, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda — fresh off its win in last month’s elections — came under fire following a rally in Sousse, Tunisia with Houda Naim, a member of Hamas. Besides Naim, Ennahda’s general secretary, Hammadi Jebali, who has been proposed as the new Prime Minister of Tunisia, made some controversial remarks about the return of the Caliphate. Jebali stated: “My brothers, you are at a historic moment…in a new cycle of civilization, God willing…we are in sixth caliphate, God willing.” This quickly raised alarm bells with Tunisia’s secular and liberal elements who had been warning prior to the elections about Ennahada’s purported double speak: saying one thing publicly while saying something more nefarious privately to its followers.

In response to Jebali’s pronouncement, Ettakatol, a party that won the fourth largest bloc of seats in the recent election and is in coalition talks with Ennahda, said the party was suspending its participation in talks on a governing coalition in the forthcoming Tunisian Constituent Assembly. Khemais Ksila, a member of the executive committee of Ettakatol, stated: “We do not accept this statement. We thought we were going to build a second republic with our partner, not a sixth caliphate.” While Lobna Jeribi, an Ettakatol Constituent Assembly member, proclaimed that Jebali’s statements raised major concerns that needed to be clarified before any coalition talks resumed.

This is not the first controversy that Ennahda has been embroiled in since they won a little more than 40 percent of seats to draft the constitution in the new Constituent Assembly. A little more than a week ago, Souad Abderrahim, a prominent female member of Ennahda, talking to Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya stated that single mothers are a disgrace to Tunisia, “do not have the right to exist,” there are limits on “full and absolute freedom,” and that one should not “make excuses for people who have sinned.” In both cases, Ennahda had to walk back the statements of both Jebali and Abderrahim, downplaying their significance.

Are these two recent examples a sign of double speak finally seeing the light of day in the aftermath of its election victory — or is it a sign of Ennahda’s political immaturity and lack of experience? The latter is more likely. Prior to and following the election there have been no signs of some type of hostile Islamist takeover by Ennahda that would then try and institute a radical interpretation of the shari‘ah.

A few days before the election, the president of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, emphasized the importance of reconciliation even if Ennahda did not win a plurality, stating: “We will congratulate the winner and will collaborate with them just as other parties should do the same if we end up winning; Tunisia is in need of everyone. The keyword is reconciliation, our foremost concern is reconciliation in composing the upcoming government without regard to ideological differences.” Ghannouchi later stressed after the election that Ennahda did not plan to instrumentalize the new constitution as a blunt tool to force a certain interpretation of Islam at Tunisian citizens, arguing, “Egypt says shari‘ah is the main source of its law, but that didn’t prevent (deposed President Hosni) Mubarak from being a dictator.” Ghannouchi in the past has also pointed to Turkey as an example where one can balance both democratic and religious values without compromising either.

Further, Ennahda has been in talks over the past several weeks with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, to form a coalition government for the new Constituent Assembly. As one can see from the above comments by Ettakatol, the two secular parties will no doubt play a productive role and provide a check on any potential Ennahda overreach.

One should be cognizant, though, that the transition will not be perfect. Moreover, with every potential accommodation Ennahda makes now that they are in power, it could erode potential grassroots support. More radical youth elements may believe that after years of suffering under the yoke of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali it is time to finally implement the oft-quoted phrase “al-Islam huwa al-Hal”; or “Islam is the Solution.” By not living up to these words one could foresee a scenario where some support is shifted to the less mainstream Salafi movement, fomenting a potential culture war in Tunisia in the medium future.

Ennahda’s pledge to respect women’s rights and not regulate social issues, such as wearing a bikini at the beach or the sale of alcohol, could become contentious issues in future elections that could pull Ennahda further to the right. Even if they do not, as more time passes since the fall of the Ben Ali regime and there are more freedoms and openness in Tunisian society, the contestation of the role of religion, its meaning, and interpretation will become a heated debate. In the near-term, though, with Ghannouchi stewarding Ennahda through the transition, such potential drift or confrontation is less likely.

Ennahda’s transition from banned opposition party to a leading voice of reform for civic Islamism is still playing out. There will be ups and downs over the next year, but its political discipline and maturity will rise over time. If there is one political party in the Middle East and North Africa that can navigate the tough challenge ahead on debating the contentious issue of the role of religion in society, Tunisia’s Ennahda party is best situated for the task. Although talk of the Caliphate is a head-turning event for many in Tunisia and in the West, since last January, Ennahda’s actual actions to date should be speaking louder than some of their ill-conceived words.

Ten months after an infuriated fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself aflame and provoked an uprising that tore President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the country’s citizens will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for a 217-seat Constituent Assembly. Tunisia’s election will be the first real electoral test of the Arab uprisings. Several major forces are vying for power in the newly democratic country.

The largest party is the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Ennahda, which enjoys the greatest amount of support and whose poll numbers stand between 25 and 30 percent. Secularist and liberal parties, such as the Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP) and Ettakatol, have been recently polling between 10 and 15 percent. The PDP has rejected any possible coalition with Ennahda, but Ettakatol has expressed a willingness to work with it. There is also a small but vocal Salafi movement, which some Tunisians fear might act as a spoiler in the election alongside Ben Ali’s security apparatus. But until recently, all indications pointed to a successful election in which Ennahda would win a plurality of the votes and enter into a coalition to draft Tunisia’s new constitution.

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