Ennahda Transition: from Islamism to secularism?

In its latest congress, the most discussed Tunisian political party Ennahda has surprised the public opinion. In fact, it took the decision of officially separating its religious and political activities and distance itself from political Islam.

This happened in a weekend of May at their 10th congress in Hammamet, where Nahdis gathered to discuss the new outcomes and policies of the party. The most startling decision was taken by electronic vote: 93.5 % of the delegates voted in favour of separating mosque and state, to distinguish religion from politics, that is. Since the Arab Spring has spread among North African countries, many scholars have started to wonder about the nexus between politics and religion. Experts had never fully studied a party putting forward democratic and religious values at the same time. Religion-driven movements had always demonstrated to opt for conservative values that had nothing in common with liberal and democratic ones. Surprisingly, the elections after the Arab Spring showed that the contrary is possible and that the end of the revolts determined the sprung of political Islam.

This is not to say that Ennahda was born after the Arab Spring. In fact, it dates back to the 1960s. However, it never won the attention of Tunisian population before the end of Arab Spring. In fact, the revolts represented a turning point for the party for taking advantage of a new view of Islam and a new perspective for politics as well. A view that has not always characterized the party and that has been adapted to the surrounding environment in which Ennahda developed.

As already mentioned, the very origins of Ennahda are in the 1960s when it was founded by a religious group of Quranic studies. In 1972, its founder Rachid Ghannouchi founded the Al Jamaa al Islamiyya, known later as Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) and in most recent years as Al-Nahda (the Renaissance). The religious tendency of the party was turned into a more political one only by the end of the 1980s. The relationship with the governments has been seesawing: between confrontation and participation on the one hand, and of conflict and repression on the other. In recent history, the party was in open contrast with Bourguiba’s and then Ben Ali’s governments. This favoured the strengthening of the movement that became an inspiration for many Tunisians whose main will was to get rid of the Ben Ali government. This growing appeal on the people worried President Ben Ali, who reinforced repression measures against Ennahda and relegated it to act ‘underground’. Ben Ali banned the party, imprisoned thousands of its members and exiled its leader Rachid Ghannouchi. However, the restrictions against the party only acted in its favour. In fact, following Ben Ali strict measures, the party gained the attention of the population and won the first democratic elections in Tunisia. The Ennahda government was not an easy one. The party had to face many controversial questions and in particular it had to face the criticisms moved by the population, of protecting the violent, extremist Salafi movement. Despite the controversial positions of Ennahda towards extremist movements, the party adapted its policies according to the change the society was undergoing, as well as to international politics.

According to this transitional aspect, it is easy to depict the reasons behind the origin of the party. As we said, Ennahda was born as a religious movement devoted only to the study of Quran and preaching. If we look for the reasons of this, we will find that Tunisia gained independence from the French only in 1956, after 75 years of foreign domination. The result in terms of internal politics was a pronounced anti-Western sentiment and the birth of many Islamist movements. Thus, the contrast with Bourguiba was mainly dictated by his ‘westernization’ and the overall thinking of the Islamists that westernization would harm the traditional values of the country. To go against Bourguiba meant also to go against the separation of Islam and the state, which Bourguiba promoted more than once. Later on, with the Ben Ali government, the repression of Islamist parties was an everyday practice. Parties like al-Nahda were banned for interfering with the State’s projects. The party was deeply affected by these restrictions and nobody thought they would have eventually turned beneficial to it.  The Arab Spring revived the party, that after years and years of reclusion was seen as one of the victims of dictatorship, a symbol representing freedom of thought that the revolution was meant to fight for. The power the party gained after the revolts made it the strongest party within the government and made it won with the majority of votes in Tunisia’s first democratic round of elections. This lasted until different opinions and points of views from within the party started to clash. More than once the party demonstrated strong controversies, which disoriented the electorate, lost between the two faces of Ennahda: the one willing to maintain traditions and Islamic values of the country and the other calling for Tunisia’s modernization.

In particular, the Salafi issue was one of the most discussed and compromised significantly the well-being of Ennahda on the political scene. In this regard, again history plays an important role to understand the position of the party. The long repression the party has experienced had brought Ennahda’s main leaders to the conclusion that reclusion is not the solution to extremism. The leader  Ghannouchi explained how exile has made all the difference in his life in terms of understanding that dialogue and political inclusion are the best means to fight extremism. This is why he declared: “We remember Ben Ali’s experience, who imprisoned tens of thousands of activists and demonized Ennahda. If we demonize the Salafists, in 10 or 15 years, they will come to power… We should talk to them as people, not as enemies”. Ennahda leaders see Salafi members as a more confused version of themselves whose ideas come from a lack of education. However, Ennahda had to save its more secular voters and more than once was ‘forced’ to go against more extremist and conservative groups. When in June 2012 some protesters attacked an art gallery in La Marsa for blasphemous paintings, Ennahda defined these acts as terrorist attacks. The Salafi answers was caustic: Ennahda is acting for gaining votes while forgetting the Islamic values. This is why soon after the party announced the importance that symbols have in religion and how the party would do its best to propose a provision against blasphemy. Another turning point in the relationship between Ennahda and Salafis occurred in September 2012 when some Salafi protesters attacked the American embassy in Tunis. The evident violence of the conservative group made Ennahda claims clearer against any form of violence. The critics toward the Salafi group became stricter and stricter.

However, violent repercussions continued to hamper Ennahda policy. In July 2013, two secular opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, were killed during an attack by a jihadi cell. The attack was supposed to be driven by Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda. Ennahda had no other choice than opposing any kind of violence coming from this group and reaffirmed the importance of distancing itself from conservative and extremist groups.

Two other events influenced the way Ennahda acted in the past years: the 2013 coup in Egypt and the growing rise of Daesh. The coup in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood of President Morsi meant for Ennahda the overthrown of a democratic elected government. Moreover, the Tunisian party had always taken distance from the Egyptian Ikhwan party. Ennahda mainly feared the return of authoritarianism and instead preferred to show similarities with the Turkish AKP party who demonstrates that Islam and democracy can live together. The Turkish and Tunisian context cannot be compared and the two parties are the exact mirror of the society and political context in which they have grown.

In Tunisia, Daesh has had a great impact among young Salafis aspiring to fight against Bashar al-Assad and free Syria. An estimated number of 3,000 Tunisians left their homeland when they did not even identified themselves as members of Daesh but simply as young Salafis or members of Ansar al-Sharia. In this regard, the response of Ennahda was again “bishwaya bishwaya” (slowly slowly) or as many media described it: too little too late. First, a more pragmatic and comprehensive approach that looked at the inclusion of these groups of ‘miserable’ people without education. Second, a complete abnegation of their acts and estrangement from any terrorist group.

This drives us to the main question about Ennahda: why is the party ditching its old theory of political Islam?

The reasons are manifold and all lead to the ‘Tunisification’ the party is trying to achieve.

The term “political Islam” has lately been used in association to the actions and extremist activities of Daesh. Ghannouchi himself said: “No justification for political Islam in Tunisia”. Ennahda has been adaptive to the last trend affecting Tunisians. This has obviously created some divide between the most conservative wing and the secular one inside the party. About the critics of having left aside the Islamic origins, some members asserted that the party is naturally evolving and that its references will remain Islamic so that the religious education they have will drive them to make appropriate economic policies. The new aim for the party is not the preservation of Islamic identity but the will of creating good governance and economic development.

Another critic sees Ennahda as adapting to the everyday trend just for its continuous quest for hegemony. A more extreme agenda is hidden behind the long-dreamt democracy.

Ennahda is learning from every single experience around Tunisia: from the Algerian one to the Egyptian coup, from Daesh in the Middle East to the rising influence of extremist groups. The Tunisian party is first testing its surroundings and then deciding how to move forward. Although Tunisification can be the desire to follow the citizens’ will, it also appears that the party may be willing to renounce to its former Islamist theories to gain more visibility inside the government.

Giuliana Scalia

MA in Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (University of Catania)


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Torelli, S.M. (2012), The “AKP Model” and Tunisia’s al-Nahda: from Convergence to Competition?, Insight Turkey Vol. 14 /No. 3.

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