Tunisia: The Islamists and the 2011 Elections

 In the wake of the revolution in Tunisia, many in the West, and in Tunisia itself, fear that Islamist parties will use the resultant power vacuum as an opportunity to gain significant political influence. This fear, though not unfounded, is often tainted by a misunderstanding of the complexities of Islamism in Tunisia. Tunisia has proven itself to be resistant to radical Islamism: since the 1950’s, it has taken some successful steps towards economic reforms and women’s rights, albeit through secular dictatorships who also suppressed free speech. Although Al-Nahda and other Islamist parties may seek to repeal some of these steps, they would also be a long awaited representation of the peoples’ wishes. These considerations make it imperative that Western powers understand the need for Islamist parties like Al-Nahda in the new political system.

Tunisia’s history reveals a commitment to women’s rights unmatched in the rest of the Arab World. Soon after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the nation implemented the Code of Personal Status (CSP), which abolished polygamy, required individual consent for marriage, and ended unilateral male divorce (talaq). This code made clear that the intellectual elites had usurped authority on family law from the ulama by instituting a secular alternative to shari’a.[1] The government passed other secular reforms at the time as well: it secularized the court system, dismantled the religious Zitouna University, and reformed the calendar to conform to Western dates.[2] These reforms effectively proclaimed the end of an era, ushering in a secular dictatorship under Habib Bourgiba and, later, Ben Ali, that would last until the recent Arab Spring.

An understanding of Tunisia’s experience with secularism makes apparent the need for representation of Islamist parties, illustrating that liberal reforms went hand in hand with political repression. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s president from 1957 until 1987 also prohibited all Islamist parties and jailed dissenters. In an infamous affront to devoted Muslims, Bourguiba drank orange juice on television during Ramadan, implying that fasting impedes development. “We cannot advance… with an empty stomach”, he is reported to have said. In the eyes of Tunisian Islamists, this act became a symbol for his lack of respect for his country’s dominant religion: Tunisia is about 99 percent Muslim. Bourguiba’s successor, Ben Ali, proved similar, despite initial democratic reforms. Ben Ali stayed in power until the recent Jasmine Revolution, when he was exiled in January. Thus, for Tunisians, discussing the role of Islam’s relationship with the law is an expression of a newfound freedom that the country has not seen in over fifty years.

Al-Nahda’s history is one of struggle and resistance against Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s secular regimes. Many Al-Nahda leaders-to-be were members of the Society for the preservation of the Qru’an in the 1970’s. At that time, Ghannoushi’s journal Ma’rifa acted as a response to Bourguiba’s secularization of Tunisian society. Ghannoushi’s group organized under the Islamic Tendency Movement, which Bourguiba quickly banned.[3] From 1984-6, Prime Minister Mzali’s commitment to political reforms and greater openness led to the release of Ghannoushi and the other Islamic Tendency Movement (ITM) leaders.

Ben Ali became president in 1987 and returned much of ITM’s leadership to jail. However, shortly thereafter Ben Ali retracted his crackdown by instituting some moderate reforms, reinstituting the Muslim calendar alongside the Gregorian and the call to prayer on the radio, and releasing Ghannoushi in 1988 and allowing Mourou, the ITM’s second-in-command, to return from exile in Saudi Arabia. Still, Ben Ali feared the popularity of the Islamist movement. In 1989, Tunisia held parliamentary elections. The ITM changed its name to Al-Nahda so as to run candidates for office (parties could not have explicitly religious names or agendas). The elections showed that Al-Nahda represented a popular opposition to Ben Ali’s regime: Despite the government’s control over the media and likely corruption, Al-Nahda won an estimated 30% of the vote, drastically outpacing its secular liberal opponents. However, the government did not grant Al-Nahda any seats in the parliament.[4]

Following the elections, Ghannoushi imposed self-exile, leaving for Europe, from which he would not return until February, 2011. After his departure, Al-Nahda and the government ceased taking steps toward reconciliation. In Ghannoushi’s absence, and in response to the failed elections, the party radicalized under Ben Ali. In 1991, members of the party attacked the headquarters of the ruling party, Ben Alis’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), killing one person, and attacking others with acid. Ghannoushi, the party’s leader, insists that individuals perpetrated the acts without the party’s backing. Still, three weeks after these acts of violence, Mourou, the party’s second-in-command and a more moderate leader, left the party, indicating that the violence may in fact have been an explicit act.[5] In 1992, Ben Ali’s government rounded up many of Al-Nahda’s leaders and convicted them of planning acts of terrorism. It is unclear how much of the evidence was real, and how much was fabricated. In 1994, Michael Collins Dunn of the Middle East Institute argued that the evidence was largely reliable and that Al-Nahda had, in fact, become a violent movement.

The Western fear of the consequences of an Islamist take-over is not unfounded. It is inspired, in part, by the resulting oppression after the victory of several Islamist movements across the Middle East: the popular revolution in Iran in 1979 instituted shari’a law and limited women’s rights; the democratic victory for the Algerian Islamist party, the Front Islamique de Salut in 1992, devolved into a violent revolutionary force; in 1998 Hizbollah won a majority of Lebanon’s parliament; and the 2006 elections in Palestine resulted in Hamas, which for a long time did not recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, winning overwhelming support. These Islamist movements illustrate a radical streak across the Middle East against some Western policies.

Additionally, some radical Islamist parties across the Middle East have taken violent and oppressive steps: For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan instituted murder as a punishment for adultery and banned girls from schools;[6] Al Qaeda advocates suicide bombing as a political tool and seeks to overthrow secular regimes by force and replace them with theocracies; the Al Saud regime in Saudi Arabia prohibits women from driving and enforces the wearing of the veil and abaya.[7] These movements are the face of Islamism to many in the West. But not all varieties of political Islam share the radicalism and violence of these movements.

Since Ghannoushi’s return to Tunisia in January, Al-Nahda has promised support for the democratic process and for human rights, along the lines of one of the region’s moderate, democratic Islamist parties – Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (abbreviated “AKP” from Turkish). Al-Nahda preaches a moderate interpretation of shari’a law, promising to maintain the ban on polygamy, make wearing the headscarf optional, and prohibit stoning or amputation as punishments. Indeed, Ghannoushi has written and spoken extensively for women’s rights in what he believes is a necessary step to embrace a demographic that other Islamist movements marginalized. Al-Nahda rejects more conservative Islamist approaches, like that propounded by Hizb al-Tahrir (the Freedom Party), which is now banned from Tunisia’s elections for advocating the instatement of an Islamic Caliphate.

The New York Times reported that Al-Nahda might be “cloaking fundamentalist intentions behind a moderate front,”[8] and in his speech about the Arab Spring on May 19, Obama cautioned that “real reform does not come at the ballot box alone” but must be tempered with protections of human rights and freedom of information. Indeed, some still associate Al-Nahda with the acts of violence perpetrated in the early 1990’s.

Al-Nahda may have some skeletons in its closet. It may be associated with a few, isolated acts of violence. But those who fear Islamism, warning against the oppression of women, persecution of minorities, and eventual demise of democracy, must recognize the many forms that Islamism can take. Al-Nahda is a moderate, and very popular, Tunisian party. This does not mean there is nothing to fear regarding democratic reforms, but it does mean that truly democratic reforms must embrace Al-Nahda.

For more information from a recent report on Al-Nahda, see Foreign Policy’s article by Marc Lynch, “Tunisia’s New Al-Nahda,” June 29th, 2011. http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/06/29/tunisias_new_al_nahda


Colleen McCullough is a Philosophy Major and Near East Studies Minor at Princeton University, Class of 2012.

[1] Hermassi, Abdelbaki. “The Political and the Religious in the Modern History of the Maghreb.” Islamism and Secularism in North Africa. Palgrave Macmillan: 1994. pp 92.

[2] Ibid, 92-3.

[3] Dunn, Michael Collins. “The Al-Nahda Movement in Tunisia: From Renaissance to Revolution.” Islamism and Secularism in North Africa. Palgrave Macmillan: 1994, 151.

[4] Henry, Clement M. “The Dialectics of Political Islam in North Africa.” Middle East Policy, 2007. http://chenry.webhost.utexas.edu/public_html/07mep-j.1475-4967.2007.00326.pdf. pp 87.

[5] Dunn, 161.

[8]“Tunisia is Uneasy Over Party of Islamists.” TheNew York Times. May 15, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/16/world/africa/16tunis.html?scp=1&sq=Tunisia+cloaking&st=nyt.

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