Tunisia: The Best Bet

By Christopher Alexander

Tunisia’s Islamist experience may hold the best prospects for a democratic transition in the Arab world. From its early roots in the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda has evolved into an influential exemplar of a moderate, pragmatic Islamism that pledges to support human rights, pluralism, and democracy. It has developed ties to secular organizations that battled authoritarian rule. It is also attuned to the realities of Tunisian society and politics and, compared to movements elsewhere, is less wedded to a strict universal ideology.

The story of Hamadi Jebali reflects the dramatic transformation of the party. Both were basically banished during the twenty-three-year rule of President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. The party was outlawed. In 1992, the former engineer and journalist was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for membership in an illegal organization and “attempting to change the nature of the state.” Jebali spent eleven of those years in solitary confinement before his release in 2006.

Tunisia’s uprising—the first in the Arab world—swept Ben Ali from power in a mere thirty days. Virtually overnight, Ennahda returned to politics. When Tunisians went to the polls in October 2011, Ennahda captured 41.5 percent of the vote, the largest in a field of more than sixty parties. The Islamist party won the right to lead the government. It opted to form a coalition with two secular parties.

Tunisia has since made the transition from autocracy to democracy faster than any other Arab country, but it still faces challenges that could stymie or even set back the pace of change. Ennahda’s ability to maintain its moderate Islamism will be tested by stubborn economic difficulties, unrealistically high public expectations, emergence of a vocal Salafist trend, and competitive pressures that come with democracy.

The Beginning

Ennahda traces its roots to the late 1960s, a time of intellectual turmoil across the Arab world. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war generated new criticism of secular nationalism. Within Tunisia, a dramatic shift in economic policy prompted many intellectuals to conclude that President Habib Bourguiba’s government lacked clear principles.

In this environment, a group of religious thinkers came together in an organization called the Association for the Safeguard of the Koran. The government had established the association to counter its foes on the left. Most of the early Islamists grew up in religious families of modest means and received a religious education. Some Islamists also spent time in Syria and Egypt, where they were exposed to the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This social and educational background put Tunisia’s early Islamists at odds with the culture and values of Tunisia’s secular, francophone elite. A young philosophy teacher named Rachid al Ghannouchi emerged as the group’s leader. Ghannouchi later reflected, “I remember we used to feel like strangers in our own country. We have been educated as Muslims and as Arabs, while we could see the country totally molded in the French cultural identity.”

Tunisia’s early Islamists focused primarily on religious and cultural issues. Like their counterparts across the region, they blamed Arab military and social crises on foreign ideologies that pulled Arabs away from their religious and cultural roots. They worked to educate Tunisians about Islamic religious and cultural values through lectures and writing. Trained in language and religion, and mindful of the government’s patronage, the movement’s leaders paid little attention to politics.

The 1970s: Deeper into Politics

Tunisia’s Islamists were pulled deeper into politics in the 1970s by economic discontent and mounting opposition to Bourguiba’s authoritarianism. Most of the opposition initially came from leftist student and labor organizations. The Islamists realized that if they wanted to reach a broader audience, they had to talk about more than religion and identity. After a government crackdown on leftist student organizations in 1971–72, Islamists stepped in and began recruiting in secondary school and university campuses. As early as 1973, the government began to fear that it was losing control of the social force it had supported as a counter to the left.

Three developments helped the Islamists develop a stronger political orientation. First, after Anwar Sadat began releasing Muslim Brothers from Egyptian jails, several of them traveled to Tunisia. Their influence gave stronger political content to Tunisian Islamism. Second, in 1978, a bloody crackdown on the country’s labor union created a political void that the Islamists again began to fill. And third, the 1979 Iranian Revolution provided an Islamic vocabulary for talking about economic and social issues.

But the Iranian Revolution also increased the Tunisian government’s concerns about the Islamists. The regime shut down Islamist publications and accused activists of exploiting Islam for political purposes. To counter these charges, the Islamists emphasized their rejection of violence and Iranian-style theocracy. They also took steps to create a stronger organizational structure. In September 1979, the Islamists established a new organization called the Islamic Group.

The 1980s: Building a Party

In the early 1980s, Bourguiba tried to bolster support by legalizing a handful of opposition parties. Hoping to join the club, the Islamic Group changed its name to the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI). The party published a platform that rejected violence and advocated human rights, democracy, and political pluralism.

Bourguiba viewed the Islamists as backward fanatics who would destroy the progressive and pro-Western country he was building. He rejected the movement’s bid for legal recognition and launched the first of several crackdowns that jailed thousands of Islamists in the mid-1980s. By the summer of 1987, Tunisia teetered on the brink of civil war. The looming prospect of violent chaos prompted Prime Minister Zine al Abidine Ben Ali to depose Bourguiba in November 1987.

The repression of the 1980s opened important fissures within the Islamist movement. To the left of the mainstream, progressive Islamists argued that Ghannouchi should develop a more sophisticated Islamism that reflected the specific characteristics of Tunisian society. On the right, a more militant and doctrinaire trend rejected democratic politics and argued that rebellion was the only way to topple Bourguiba.

The repression also helped the Islamic Tendency Movement forge ties with the human rights league, the labor movement, and other opposition parties. Regardless of the philosophical differences between them, all of these groups shared a common desire to replace Bourguiba with a democratic system that respected human and political rights. Increasingly, the MTI cast its struggle in these terms. In turn, other organizations rallied to the movement’s defense as Bourguiba’s repression intensified.

1987–91: Ben Ali’s Brief Honeymoon

Ben Ali began his tenure with a wave of reforms that released political prisoners and relaxed some controls on political life. MTI leaders praised the new president for removing Bourguiba and saving the country from chaos. In another bid for legal recognition, they changed the party’s name to the Ennahda (Renaissance) Party in order to comply with a new law that forbade party names to contain religious references.

Ben Ali, however, did not legalize Ennahda. But he also did not want to provoke a party that enjoyed strong popular support and a clandestine organization. When Tunisians went to the polls in 1989, the government did not allow Ennahda to run lists as a legal party, but it did allow Islamist candidates to run as independents.

The Islamists’ clear victory over secular opposition parties ended Ben Ali’s honeymoon with Ennahda. Between 1989 and 1992, arbitrary arrests, passport seizures, and incidents of torture steadily increased.

Unable to organize or preach within the country, Ghannouchi fled Tunisia one month after the 1989 elections. More militant Islamists within Ennahda and other organizations built protest networks on university campuses and in underprivileged neighborhoods. As marches and demonstrations increased, so did the police crackdown.

In February 1991, three Islamist activists burned a ruling party office in the Bab Souika quarter of Tunis. This incident—which Ennahda condemned—along with the government’s claim to have uncovered a broader revolutionary plot, provided the regime with an excuse to launch a full assault.

1992–2000: The Darkest Chapter

Throughout the 1990s, the Tunisian government steadily intensified its campaign against Ennahda. From his base in London, Ghannouchi maintained contact with supporters in Europe and the Arab world. He also was able to communicate with key activists in Tunisia. However, Ben Ali’s repression destroyed much of Ennahda’s organization and forced the remnants deep underground.

Ennahda did not cease to exist. Because security forces often harassed the families of political prisoners, Ben Ali’s crackdown created serious economic difficulties for thousands of Tunisians who never went to jail. During this period, Ennahda maintained a sparse clandestine network of activists, who channeled financial resources and other forms of assistance to prisoners’ families. The party also benefited from the support of human rights activists and some secular politicians who defended Ennahda as part of their broader effort to build a coalition against Ben Ali.

2000–11: Rebuilding

Tunisia’s political environment began to change in the early years of the new century. Economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and mounting evidence of grotesque corruption within Ben Ali’s family generated frustration that spread deeper and wider than in the 1990s. Even members of the ruling party began to feel the grasping hands of Ben Ali’s kleptocratic family. Ben Ali also faced stronger international pressure on human rights, prompting the president to allow a bit more space for opposition activity.

Ennahda activists, many of whom had been in jail since the 1980s and 1990s, began to rebuild the party’s organization. By 2005, Ennahda and several other opposition groups agreed to a joint platform of demands. In the deal, Ennahda committed itself to a multiparty democracy and to the progressive rights that Tunisian women by then enjoyed.

As an organization, Ennahda did not play an important role in the December 2010 rebellion that drove Ben Ali from power. In the months that followed, however, its organization and financial resources made it the most effective party in Tunisia. Ennahda enjoyed name recognition, national grassroots structures, money, and credibility that no other party could equal. It rallied a broad base that stretched beyond religious voters to include social conservatives, human rights activists, and voters who saw Ennahda as a representative of Tunisian identity.

Key Positions

Islam and Democracy

Ennahda has repeatedly pledged its commitment to competitive multiparty politics. Since Ben Ali’s fall, the party has placed particular emphasis on creating a parliamentary system that prevents the concentration of power in one person’s hands.

Many secular Tunisians and outsiders question the sincerity of Ennahda’s commitment to democracy. Time will tell, but a strong case can be made that democracy serves Ennahda’s interests. Over the long term, Ennahda leaders suggest that numbers are on their side. They believe that most Tunisians hold views that are closer to Ennahda’s than to the views of Tunisia’s secular parties. If the leaders are correct, then a system that relies on the expressed will of the people will generate good results for Ennahda.

In the short term, however, Ennahda cannot govern alone. Its leaders realize that they benefited in the October 2011 elections from name recognition and from broad sympathy for Ennahda because the party bore the brunt of Ben Ali’s repression. These advantages will not last long. Once the Constituent Assembly completes the new constitution, Tunisians will go back to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. From now on, voters will evaluate Ennahda on the basis of its record in government, not in opposition. To generate economic growth and jobs, Ennahda needs the cooperation of social and economic actors who do not share its social and religious views.

Ennahda also needs the cooperation of other political parties. Ennahda received 41.5 percent of the vote in an election that attracted barely more than 50 percent of eligible voters. In other words, although Ennahda received more votes than any other party, well under 50 percent of the adult population actually voted for Ennahda. If it is true that a majority of Tunisians are more conservative than the secular parties, it is not necessarily true that this majority will vote for Ennahda. Unless and until that becomes true, Ennahda needs coalition partners to build a majority that can pass legislation in the National Assembly.

If Ennahda cannot govern alone, it also does not want to govern alone—at least not now. As Ghannouchi said during a November 2011 visit to Washington, D.C., “The next phase [of Tunisia’s transition] is a sensitive phase. There are big challenges. It is an adventure for a single party to go it alone during this phase.” Tunisia faces serious social and economic challenges that Ennahda cannot solve before Tunisians go to the polls again in 2013. Ennahda wants to share power because it wants to share responsibility for failing to meet popular expectations.

Ennahda insists that it does not seek to impose Sharia. In 2011, it resisted efforts by more extreme Islamists to rewrite the constitution to make it more Islamic. In assembling the government that will rule until the next elections, Ennahda also allowed competent secular technocrats to fill important ministries.

The combination of words and deeds suggested that Ennahda does not see Islam as a set of universal obligations or as a guide to policymaking. Instead, it sees Islam as a source of cultural identity and personal belief as well as the source of Ennahda’s commitment to ethical government. Because Ennahda believes that most Tunisians already are more religious than either previous governments or secular parties, the party does not need to wage a campaign to make Tunisian society more Islamic. It simply wants to remove restrictions that prevent Muslims from practicing their faith as they choose.

Other Religions

Ennahda has stated clearly that it supports the rights of Jews and Christians to practice their faiths in Tunisia. On one hand, it is an easy commitment to make since Tunisia’s population is 99 percent Sunni Muslim. Ennahda does not have to contend with the sectarian tensions that complicate politics in Egypt or Syria.

On the other hand, the emergence of a vocal Salafist trend gives real significance to Ennahda’s position. When Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of the Gaza government, arrived in Tunis in January 2012, a handful of Salafists greeted him at the airport with cries of “Crush the Jews” and “Kill the Jews.” Four days later, Ennahda issued a statement that condemned those slogans and reaffirmed the equal rights of Tunisia’s Jewish citizens.

Ennahda’s commitment to religious freedom, which Ghannouchi has explained at length, appears sincere. More pragmatically, this commitment costs Ennahda little and could generate important benefits. The new government realizes that Tunisian Jewish communities in Europe, North America, and Israel could make important contributions to the country’s economic recovery. President Moncef Marzouki, elected by the Constituent Assembly in December 2011, recently called on Jews of Tunisian origin to return home and help rebuild the country.

The United States

Cordial relations with the United States date to the early days of the American republic. Washington supported Tunisia’s struggle for independence, and Tunisia’s foreign policy generally has supported U.S. interests in the region even when those positions generated criticism in the Arab world.

On several occasions, Ennahda leaders have harshly criticized the United States, particularly in the early 1990s. The movement felt that Washington supported Ben Ali’s dictatorship out of an unrealistic fear of Islamist violence. In 2012, Ennahda leaders contend that Americans should see those criticisms in context. They reflect Ennahda’s need to rally its base in the face of deepening repression. Referring to how his position has changed since that time, Ghannouchi said in a recent speech, “Only stones don’t change in twenty years; people do.”

Ennahda may not like aspects of U.S. policy in other parts of the Arab world, particularly Palestine. But it does not see those issues as central to Tunisia’s welfare. As Ghannouchi’s 2011 trip to Washington illustrated, what matters now is maintaining American support of Tunisia’s democratic transition and receiving development assistance. Ennahda is not prepared to allow differences of opinion on tangential issues to disrupt the relationship.

Women’s Issues

No single constituency has expressed greater concern about Ennahda’s rise than Tunisian women. Tunisia was long known for its progressive legal framework on women’s rights. The 1956 Personal Status Code provided the foundation for this framework.

Ennahda has said repeatedly that it will respect the Personal Status Code and all other rights women enjoyed under Ben Ali. The party has claimed it wants to expand opportunities for women by eliminating workplace harassment and other inequities. When conflict broke out in December 2011 between Salafists and secularists over the right to wear the veil in universities, Ennahda called on university officials to resolve the conflict “without infringing in any shape or form on a woman’s fundamental right to choose her own clothing.… We live within the dynamics of a fledgling democracy, and we must respect democratic principles.”

Women have long played an active role within Ennahda. Women sustained much of the family support network during the darkest days of Ben Ali’s repression. Ennahda was one of the first parties to support the new rule requiring political parties to include equal numbers of men and women on their candidate lists.


Ennahda clearly supports Palestinian aspirations. But it sees the struggle as a Palestinian affair. Israel and Palestine are thousands of miles away. European and North African neighbors are closer and much more important. Jews of Tunisian origin can be important allies in the country’s development effort. In mid-2011, Ennahda opposed an effort by some parties to craft an agreement that would have required the new constitution to forbid normalized relations with Israel.

Other Islamists

Tunisia’s Islamist movement has never been a monolith. Ennahda itself is a diverse party. Since the early 1980s, more extreme organizations have criticized the mainstream’s decision to work through democratic political institutions.

Since Ben Ali’s fall, a Salafist trend has become much more active in Tunisia. Recent estimates put the number of Salafist supporters at 2,000 to 3,000. The trend contains a number of organizations, but two are the most visible in 2012: Hizb al Tahrir, which splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood, has existed in Tunisia since the early 1980s. Ansar al Sharia was established in April 2011.

The Salafist trend rallies around a handful of positions:

A rejection of democratic politics

A demand for an Islamic state with the Koran and Sharia as the basis for the constitution

An elimination of political parties and elections as infringements on God’s sovereignty

Gender segregation and public prayer on university campuses

A return to the veil in universities and public offices

The Salafist trend is active in several working-class neighborhoods in and around Tunis, and it also reaches into the regions of the country that felt the strongest effects of the revolt last winter. The movement controls a network of mosques and enjoys financial support from outside the country.

Despite their small numbers, the Salafists have made a dramatic mark on the early days of Tunisia’s new government. As noted earlier, they have been particularly active on university campuses. They have demonstrated outside the National Assembly. They also have attacked cinemas, bars, and houses of prostitution.

The Future

In 2011, Tunisians carried out a comparatively smooth transition, which included passing a sequence of reforms and holding the first free elections. Several factors were key: the military was willing to stay out of politics, Islamists and secular leaders worked together, and voters elected candidates willing to work across ideological lines. Those factors have made Tunisia a model for the region. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s fledgling democracy and the mainstream Islamist movement face daunting challenges.

Managing the Economy and Popular Expectations

Frustration over unemployment and regional economic disparities helped to spark the rebellion against Ben Ali. By the first anniversary of the uprising in 2012, the rate of unemployment still hovered around 15 percent nationally; it was higher in interior regions. The more prosperous coastal areas still felt like a different country from the interior. The economy registered negative growth in 2011, and Western assistance has been slow to arrive.

Tunisia enjoys a prime geographic location and an educated population. But the country has few natural resources, and many of its traditional exports struggle in deeply competitive markets. Identifying sectors that can generate growth, attract investors, boost tourism, expand exports, and distribute growth and jobs more equitably will take time. Achieving these goals will also force the government to make hard choices between policies that attract investment and create jobs for the long term and policies that increase incomes short term.

Many Tunisians understand these challenges. Yet hardship also breeds impatience. In the first year after the uprising, hundreds of sit-ins and strikes crippled the economy. The new government pleaded with the population—to little avail—to stop the protests, which were making it even more difficult to jumpstart a recovery.

Public impatience creates a particular challenge for Ennahda. Failure to address popular grievances could make Ennahda vulnerable to criticism when election season begins again in 2013. To protect itself from the left, Ennahda could be tempted to fall back on grandiose, but irresponsible, populism. To protect itself from the right, Ennahda could take a more conservative stand on cultural issues. Perhaps most dangerous, Ennahda could become less tolerant of criticism and use its new powers to craft political rules that handicap political opposition.

Managing the Salafists

The Salafists’ confrontational rhetoric and tactics have put Ennahda in a difficult position. Ennahda leaders hope that a more open political environment will moderate the Salafists’ views. When pressed, they have also publicly denounced Salafist positions on the constitution, women’s issues, and the use of anti-Semitic rhetoric. These statements, however, have not always been timely, which has led critics to argue that Ennahda may not truly reject the Salafists’ message.

Salafists are only a small fraction of the Islamist trend, but criticizing their positions risks alienating conservative members of Ennahda’s base and acknowledging the Salafists as important political players. But failure to repudiate the Salafists’ more extreme rhetoric would reinforce doubts about Ennahda’s ultimate intentions.

New Political Institutions

Decades of dictatorship have given many Tunisians a strong allergy to executive power. Ennahda supports a parliamentary system that vests substantial power in a prime minister who is more directly accountable to voters than a president.

But making power accountable also carries risks, especially in a country that faces serious social and economic challenges. Meeting these challenges will require a state that can make difficult choices and execute them efficiently. As the constituent assembly rewrites the constitution, Ennahda will need to create a firewall against authoritarian relapse without depriving the country of decisive leadership.

Ennahda also must support institutions that clearly divide power and that can sustain changes in personnel at the top. The current government is led by three men—President Marzouki, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, and Moustafa Ben Jaafar, the president of the Constituent Assembly—with long histories as partners struggling against authoritarian rule. Their history of trust has aided the new government. But the arrangement between the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of the Constituent Assembly did not resolve questions about the division of powers among them. A key challenge will be clarifying the division of powers in ways that do not rely on shared histories or views.

As the major power in government, the Islamist movement is tasked with constructing institutions to protect minority rights for women, Jews, Christians, and others—a question that vexes Tunisia’s secularists. Absent institutions that guarantee protections, creeping social conservatism and political competition could push Ennahda to the right—and to violations of minority rights that are justified not with the language of Sharia, but with the language of majority rule.

Christopher Alexander is the John and Ruth McGee director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program at Davidson College. In addition to several articles on politics in North Africa, he is the author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb (2010).

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The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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