The announcement by the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda that it would separate politics from religion in its strategy made global headlines in May 2016, and put Tunisia once again into the spotlights. In a way, the country that in December 2010 sparked the Arabs’ most important revolution since the era of independence, was now in the process of offering Muslims one of their most critical political revisions since the caliphate was abolished in 1926.
When Islamists entered Tunisian politics in the 1970s, under Rached Ghanouchi’s leadership, they formed the Movement of Islamist Tendency (MTI). They said that Islamic traditions should be at the core of the state and planned to overthrow the secular republic established in 1957. They were in the constellation of Islamist movements that emerged all over the Arab world, inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, exploiting the social malaise in their respective countries, channelling funds from rich Arab Gulf countries and later encouraged by Iran’s Islamic revolution.
In Tunisia, they were among the most important opponents to the ruling party in the 1980s. Perceived as an existential threat by former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Ennahda was banned in 1991 and thousands of its members were jailed or went into exile. The party kept working underground and from abroad, but became marginal. It adopted a more peaceful and modern stance, but remained attached to its Islamist identity. It came back to prominence in 2011, when Tunisia became a democracy.
Ennahda’s electoral campaign in 2011 was largely about identity and the importance of Islamic values in society. Most of those who voted for the party in October of that year did so because of its perceived integrity and correctness, considered the highest level of Islamic devotion. For Tunisians, Ennahda’s members are simply called ‘the Islamists’. Why is Ennahda therefore abandoning these 1.5 million voters and effectively ditching Islam?
In fact, between 2011 and the following electoral round, Ennahda lost more than 500,000 votes, as fewer than one million people voted for the party in October 2014. Although Ennahda came second in 2014, it became clear to its leadership that it was losing the aura it had three years before and a change in strategy was needed.
The loss of popularity has many explanations. First and foremost are the high expectations that many people had following the collapse of the dictatorship in January 2011. Ennahda promised to respond to many of them but failed, and the country’s economic, social, security and political problems were only exacerbated with time. This has alienated many voters and was the main campaign of Ennahda’s opponents to discredit it.
The party was moreover faced by very strong opposition, mainly from the secular elite that prevailed during most of Tunisia’s postcolonial history, and which controls the media, the means of production and several ways to influence public opinion. This elite felt threatened by Ennahda’s dominance, and made a counterattack that portrayed Ennahda as a terrorist entity whose actions were a systematic attempt to destroy Tunisia and transform it into a radical Islamist state. These accusations have appealed to many Tunisian citizens, especially as a growing number of Tunisia’s youth radicalized and joined extremist groups.
Furthermore, the fear of political Islam – radical or not – helped to fuel civil war in Libya and Syria, and contributed to the army coup in Egypt. It alienated a number of Arab forces and pushed them to coalesce even while fighting each other against this perceived common enemy. It is hence noticeable to see, at least in the crucial year of 2013, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, the Syrian regime, many militias of different ideologies inside Libya and other places, etc., all united to face Islamism on the ground and through media and propaganda.
Among the international community as well, Islamism started to become an issue. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the cruel videos it broadcast, the radicalization of many former moderate Islamists in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere, and the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to deal with daily politics in Egypt, all made Western powers, until then unopposed to the rise of political Islam, sceptical about this trend and the place of Islam in politics.
Aware of the need to keep international support alive, in order to secure a protection in case an Egypt scenario happens, as well as the need to calm the fears of the country’s elite while seducing as many segments of the population as possible, Ennahda opted for compromise and what seemed like a Great Leap Forward. Ghannouchi, the party’s executive and spiritual leader, is the main force behind this decision.
The party will of course not become a secularist party, and Islam will remain an important component of the movement’s leaders and members’ behaviour. But the prominent Islamic predicators of the party will either quit or refrain from predication. Ghannouchi’s Friday prayers inside the party headquarters will end. The use of Islamic slogans will diminish in the party’s campaigns and a more republican and secular lexicon will be introduced in the discourse, etc.
Even so, it will remain difficult to seduce secular voters and co-opt them. What Ennahda can do is, at last, to make itself acceptable and seen as a normal political party, not an apocalyptic group with a hidden agenda. In this regard, Ennahda is following the policy of Morocco’s Islamists, the Justice and Development Party (PJD). Among its seduction tricks towards Tunisia’s secular elite, for example, is a French-speaking Facebook page in the name of Ennahda’s leader Ghannouchi, often portraying non-veiled women and young life-loving people.
Now the problem for Ennahda is how to keep its own constituency. There is no way the party can ask its hardcore sympathizers to forget the identity part and start voting for it as a non-Islamist party.
One way for it to keep its traditional voters is to rely on ‘its’ civil society. Since 2011, people considered close to Ennahda started launching charities and CSOs inspired by Islam, targeting the poorest fringes of the population but also the youth in Tunisia’s interior. It is perhaps among these groups that Ennahda will look for support in the elections of March 2017 and secure seats in the municipal councils. While not officially affiliated to the party, these groups will be close enough to Ennahda to spread its message and run its campaign.
Having succeeded in organizing its tenth convention, and celebrating its fifth anniversary of activity since the advent of democracy in Tunisia, Ennahda is ready for any future political battle. It is also the single most successful and functioning political party in the country, because of its internal cohesion but also due to the conflicts that broke apart its main (secular) opponents. Islamist or not, Ennahda’s victory in the 2017 local elections seem assured.