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 had evolved by 2015 into an influential exemplar of a moderate, pragmatic Islamism that pledged to support human rights, pluralism, and democracy. It developed ties to secular organizations that battled authoritarian rule. It was also attuned to the realities of Tunisian society and politics and, compared to movements elsewhere, was less wedded to a strict universal ideology.

The story of Hamadi Jebali reflected 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 16 years in prison for membership in an illegal organization and “attempting to change the nature of the state.” Jebali spent 11 of those years in solitary confinement before his release in 2006.  In December, 2011 Jebali became Tunisia’s first post-authoritarian prime minister.

Tunisia’s uprising—the first in the Arab world—swept Ben Ali from power in a mere 30 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 60 parties. The Islamist party won the right to lead the government. It opted to form a coalition with two secular parties.

Ennahda’s first stint in government proved challenging.  High public expectations, daunting economic challenges and divisive debates over a new constitution highlighted the party’s inexperience and divisions within its ranks.  The government’s inability to address the grievances that fueled the uprising, coupled with violence by jihadi groups, undermined popular confidence in Ennahda’s ability to govern effectively. 

Facing mounting opposition in the streets, the Ennahda-led government stepped aside and allowed a team of technocrats to take control of the government in January, 2013.  When Tunisians went to the polls in late 2014, they put both parliament and the presidency in the hands of Nidaa Tounes – a new party borne of the frustrations with Ennahda that includes officials from the old authoritarian regime.

In early 2015, Tunisia still stood as the region’s best bet for a successful transition to democratic politics.  However, the country still faced economic, social and political challenges that could stymie or even set back the pace of change. These challenges, and Tunisia’s shifting array of parties and alliances, has tested Ennahda’s ability to maintain the broad base of support that made it such a powerful force in Tunisian politics.

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 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. This broad base allowed Ennahda to dominate the October, 2011 elections for a government that would prepare a new constitution.

2012-15: Ennahda in Power, and Out Again

Ennahda won a plurality in the October 2011 election, but not a majority.  In order to form a government, the party had to draw others into a coalition.  Two parties accepted the invitation.  The Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol were secular, center-left parties that had worked with Ennahda in a coalition against Ben Ali.  Hamadi Jebali, from Ennahda, became the new prime minister.  Moncef Marzouki, from CPR, became Tunisia’s interim president.  Mustapha Ben Jaafar, from Ettakatol, became speaker of the Constituent Assembly. 

This troika struggled as a government.  Ennahda dominated the coalition and made decisions that alienated its partners and other parties.  It also loaded portions of the state administration with incompetent loyalists.  Looking back, Ennahda leaders have admitted to missteps that reflected their inexperience. 

The whole government was also consumed by contentious debates over the new constitution.  The commissions that drafted language on the role of Islam, the nature of basic rights and liberties, and the role of women were bogged down in protracted debates that frequently pitted Ennahda representatives against those from other parties, both secular and religious.  More conservative Islamists demonstrated on university campuses and in the streets to pressure the Ennahda leadership to take more rigid positions in these debates.  The activism fueled secularists’ fears that Ennahda would use its power to craft a constitution limiting freedoms and imposing conservative religious values.  

These concerns, and increasing militancy from jihadi groups, prompted Tunisia’s notoriously fractious secular parties to build a united front against Ennahda.  In the summer of 2012, former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi launched Nidaa Tounes (the Call for Tunisia), a new secular party that included people from Ben Ali’s old RCD.

The unity campaign gained additional energy after jihadi assassins killed two secular politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in 2013.  Led by Nidaa Tounes and the leftist Popular Front, a coalition of parties and civil society organizations formed the National Salvation Front.  The NSF demanded that the government resign so that at a technocratic team could govern the country until the next elections.  Through the early fall, NSF activists – backed by the powerful trade union organization – demonstrated outside the Constituent Assembly and in the streets of Tunis.

In October, Ennahda’s leaders concluded that they could no longer resist this opposition.  To protect the party’s longer term viability, it decided to step aside before Tunisia plunged into the kind of unrest that toppled the Morsi government, discredited the Muslim Brotherhood, and reestablished authoritarian governance in Egypt.  Ennahda joined a national dialogue and agreed to resign. 

The Constituent Assembly completed the new constitution in January 2014.  The new constitution divided power between the executive and legislative branches, explicitly guaranteed freedom of conscience, provided legal equality between the sexes, and refused to establish Islam as a source of law. 

Stepping away from the responsibilities of government allowed Ennahda to concentrate on new parliamentary and presidential elections.  The party’s strong national infrastructure and its healthy financial resources allowed it to mount an impressive campaign against Nidaa Tounes.  Ennahda’s campaign emphasized the danger of putting the young democracy’s fate in the hands of a party that included people from the old regime.

Ennahda’s position attracted a substantial number of voters when Tunisians went to the polls in late 2014.  But many more Tunisians used the ballot box to express their frustration with the security environment and with the government’s failure to address the country’s socio-economic challenges.  In the October parliamentary election, Nidaa Tounes won 37 percent of the vote.  Ennahda came in second place with 27.5 percent.

Ennahda did not run a candidate for the presidency, and it did not officially endorse any candidate.  Unofficially, however, many Ennahda activists used the party’s structures to support Moncef Marzouki against Beji Caid Essebsi.  Essebsi won nearly 56 percent of the vote.  Marzouki won 44 percent.  For many observers, Marzouki’s loss was also Ennahda’s.  The presidential election was also striking because the lowest turn-out was in Sidi Bouzid, the remote town where the Arab Spring was launched after a young fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest corruption.

Many Tunisians hoped that Nidaa and Ennahda, the country’s two most popular parties, would form a national unity government.  Ennahda openly expressed its willingness to cooperate, but secular and left elements in Nidaa resisted the idea. In the early weeks of 2015, the nature of Ennahda’s relationship to the new government became a central question in Tunisia’s political life.

Key Positions

Islam and Democracy

Ennahda does not treat 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.  Islam also roots the party’s commitment to ethical government. Ennahda wants observant Muslims to enjoy religious freedoms that the previous regime denied them.  The party also wants religious values to have a place in the public sphere.  But Ennahda does not want to monopolize that sphere and it does not seek to impose its values on Tunisians who don’t share them. 

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 continue to question Ennahda’s commitment to democracy. They fear that Ennahda will use the ballot box to take power, then use this power to limit democratic freedoms, to reduce opportunities for women, or to shut down the democratic process. 

This scenario is unlikely for three reasons.  First, this scenario presumes that Ennahda has agreed on one set of values and on one political strategy.  In fact, Ennahda is a diverse party that includes a wide range of opinion.  

Second, Ennahda’s willingness to accept compromises on social issues in the new constitution, to step down in 2013 and to support the results of the 2014 election make it hard to question the party’s commitment to dialogue, compromise and electoral competition. 

Finally, and most importantly, Ennahda leaders understand that this scenario is neither feasible nor conducive to their interests.  Ennahda’s strategy has depended on cooperation with secular democratic parties since the late 1970s.  Ennahda leaders have always acknowledged that they cannot address the country’s profound economic problems without the cooperation of Tunisians who do not share Ennahda’s religious and social values.  This does not only mean political and economic elites.  Even in 2011, Ennahda received only 41.5 percent of the vote in an election that attracted barely more than 50 percent of eligible voters.    

Other developments over the past two years give Ennahda even stronger incentives to support democratic politics.  For the first year and a half after Ben Ali’s fall, Ennahda’s competition consisted of a handful of small leftist parties.  These parties did not have strong national organizations.  Their ideologies did not appeal to most Tunisian voters. 

The rise of Nidaa Tounes has created a different electoral landscape.  To an even greater degree than Ennahda, Nidaa represents a broad coalition of personalities and philosophies.  The presence of more conservative elements within its ranks, along with people who have extensive experience in government, makes Nidaa a much stronger competitor for moderate and conservative votes.  The 2014 elections showed that many Tunisians who voted for Ennahda in 2011 switched to Nidaa. 

A firm commitment to democracy could help Ennahda to win back some of these voters.  While many Tunisians supported Nidaa because they want firm and effective government, others fear that Nidaa will steer the country back toward authoritarian rule. Nidaa leaders might have experience in government, but they gained that experience in an authoritarian context.  Pressed to solve difficult economic problems quickly, to bring jihadists to heel, and to deal with the diversity of their own party, Nidaa leaders might argue that the country cannot afford the slow pace, the inefficiencies and the compromises that democracy requires.  They could still profess to support democracy, just not right now.  If this happens, a credible commitment to democracy could help Ennahda at the polls.

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.

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 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.

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 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.”

Despite these commitments, the status of women generated a heated debate during the drafting of the new constitution in 2012-13.  Proposed language that described women as “complementary” to men provoked fierce opposition from women’s and human rights organizations.  Ultimately, Ennahda’s leaders supported language in the new constitution that provides robust guarantees for gender equality under the law and in political life.  But the protracted debate reinforced the perception among many women’s rights advocates that they had to push Ennahda’s leadership to support more progressive language.

Israel-Palestine

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 Salafi supporters at 2,000 to 3,000. The trend contains a number of organizations, but two have been particularly active.  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 Salafi trend is active in several working-class neighborhoods in and around Tunis.  It also maintains bases of support in some poorer regions of the country, particularly in the west.  The movement controls a network of mosques and enjoys financial support from outside the country.

The Salafi trend tends to rally around a handful of positions:

  • A skepticism of democratic politics and political parties
  • A demand for an Islamic state with the Koran and Sharia as the basis for the constitution
  • Gender segregation and public prayer on university campuses
  • A return to the veil in universities and public offices

However, it is important to emphasize that Tunisia’s Salafi population is not a homogeneous actor.  It is a trend that includes a range of opinions about strategy and about the proper orientation to the new political system.  Not all Tunisian Salafis are jihadists.  Not all Tunisian Salafis oppose participating in party politics. 

Despite their relatively small numbers, the Salafists have made a dramatic mark on Tunisia’s political development over the past four years.  As noted earlier, Salafists have been particularly active on university campuses. They have demonstrated outside the National Assembly. They also have attacked cinemas, bars, and houses of prostitution.

Over the past two years, a jihadi element within Salafi movement has become more active.  In September, 2012, militants affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia attacked the US embassy.  Armed groups associated with Ansar al-Sharia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have waged an armed campaign against army and police forces in the western mountains near Kasserine and in the area around Kef, Jendouba and Beja. Jihadi militants assassinated two prominent secular politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in 2013. 

Ennahda denounces jihadi violence and the party supported the government’s decision to label Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist group.  Nevertheless, the increase in jihadi violence played a major role in the erosion of popular support for Ennahda and the rise of Nidaa Tounes.  Many Tunisians felt that Ennahda was either unable or unwilling to take effective action against the jihadis and maintain public order.  

The Future

By 2015, Tunisia was widely viewed as a model of democratic transition in the Arab world.  Tunisia deserved the praise, but critical factors behind its success were not easy to replicate in much of the region.  Tunisia’s military stayed out of politics.  A robust collection of civil society organizations played important roles at critical moments.  The leaders of the country’s political parties, including Ennahda, demonstrated courage, wisdom and a commitment to democratic institutions.  These assets developed over decades, long before the Arab Spring. 

The four years from 2011 to 2015 were hard.  Crafting a new constitution and conducting new elections took twice as long as many observers expected.  The delay, along with economic stagnation and the difficult security environment, generated a widespread sense of gridlock and frustration.  But Tunisia’s survival despite tense moments encouraged confidence that it could survive others in the future.  In early 2015, the next five years looked to be even more difficult than the previous four. 

Tunisia still faced the same basic challenges that it faced in 2011-13.  Could the government generate security, growth and jobs?  Could it distribute these goods more equitably?  Could it accomplish these goals in a way that respects democracy?  

From 2011-13, Ennahda bore primary responsibility for achieving these goals.  The major political fault line divided “secularists” and “Islamists,” and most observers assumed that threats to Tunisia’s transition would come from the Islamists.  They feared that Ennahda might renege on its democratic commitments or prove unable to control extremists. 

The 2014 elections passed responsibility to Nidaa Tounes.  But the election changed more than the government.  It also changed the conversation about threats to democracy. During the campaign many voters – secular and Islamist – questioned the wisdom of handing both parliament and the presidency to a party that contains many people from the old regime.  For these voters, it is the secularist party that now must show that it will respect democracy.

The first steps were encouraging.  Caid Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes pledged to reach out and to serve all Tunisians.  In early January, 2015 the party nominated Habib Essid – a former interior minister but an independent – to serve as prime minister.  Many observers believed that Nidaa chose Essid because he would be more acceptable to Ennahda and its supporters.  In the following days, Ennahda and Nidaa held extensive conversations to determine whether or not Ennahda would join the new government. 

Tunisia may have advanced too far on the road to democracy to slide back into the authoritarianism of the Bourguiba or Ben Ali eras.  The new constitution dramatically reduced the power of the presidency.  Civil society organizations provide a strong bulwark for democracy.  But risks remain.  The new government feels intense pressure to address longstanding economic and social grievances.  Unemployment remains slightly higher than 15 percent nationally as of 2015, but this figure masks profound inequalities inside the country.  By 2015, after the revolution, unemployment continues to be much higher among the young and the interior feels like a different country from the coast. 

Tunisia enjoys a prime geographic location and an educated population. But it has few natural resources, and many of its traditional exports struggle in competitive markets. Identifying sectors that could 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 in the short term.

Many Tunisians understand these challenges. But hardship also breeds impatience.  Strikes and sit-ins have made it even more difficult to jumpstart a recovery.  Under pressure to address social grievances and to respond firmly to the simmering jihadi threat, the looming question in 2015 is whether the new government can maintain its commitment to consultation, compromise, and democratic liberties and institutions. 

This environment creates new challenges for Ennahda, too.  The party’s time in government and its electoral losses sparked important debates about its strategy and identity.  These debates continue as the party decides how it will use its considerable power in the National Assembly. 

One key question is to what extent it will cooperate with Nidaa and its partners for the sake of national unity and efficient policymaking.  The other is to what extent it will oppose the government for the sake of maintaining a distinct identity, and whether it will take advantage of public disenchantment if the government fails to generate results by the time voters go to the polls again.  

Ennahda’s brand of moderate Islamism will continue to play a powerful role in Tunisia’s political life.  But these strategic debates, and the evolution of the party landscape, could produce important organizational changes. Ennahda faces the danger of either a split or losing a portion of its base to other organizations. In 2015, the leadership has to decide whether to alter the party’s message or its strategy to recapture the voters lost in 2014. Those losses freed Ennahda from the responsibilities of government.  But they raised hard questions about the party’s internal life and its role in Tunisia’s new democracy.

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).

Photo credits: Rachid al Ghannouchi by Ennahda via Flickr; Ennahda logo via Ennahda facebook page

EMAIL UPDATES

Sign up for newsletter here.

In the News

Our Articles

For more articles, click here.

Overview

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.

The Islamists Are Coming

Our Partner