In this article, we shall discuss the political Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia. We shall examine the history of Ennahda, its role in Tunisian politics during the regime of Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, their electoral victory in 2011, their time leading the government, they resignation from the Tunisian government in 2013, as well as more recent electoral and political activity in Tunisia. We shall also discuss their political and ideological positions with regards to Tunisian politics.
History of Ennahda
The roots of Ennahda go decades back, into the 1960s. During this time, one of the prominent political movements in the region was Arab nationalism, led primarily by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s philosophy is not one that that centered around Islam in government. However, in 1967, Nasser and Egypt (as well as Jordan and Syria) were defeated by Israel in what is known as the Six Day War. And as a result, many began to criticize secularism and Arab Nationalism. It was at this time that more Political Islamist movements were forming in Tunisia and elsewhere (but not the first time, as the Muslim Brotherhood was operating in Egypt since 1928). In Tunisia, “a group of religious thinkers came together in an organization called the Association for the Safeguard of the Koran” (Alexander, 2012: 40). Interestingly, the government not only was alright with this group existed, but helped in creating them (Alexander, 2012). The concern at the time was the rise of communism, and Islamist groups were often courted by governments to help speak out against the communist currents in the Middle East, North Africa, and other Muslim-majority parts of the world.
Initially, the Islamists were much more active on religious, as well as cultural issues in the country and the region. Similar to other Islamist parties elsewhere, “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” (Alexander, 2012: 40). However, much of this changed beginning in the 1970s. With the rise of authoritarianism in Tunisia with Habib Bourguiba’s continued control of the political space in the country, as well as a declining economy in the 1970s, The Islamist groups, looking for more influence in the country, began to speak out against the government. And it was when the government went after leftist groups in 1971 and 1972 that the Islamists began increasing their public outreach and recruitment efforts (Alexander, 2012).
Foreign events in neighboring countries also played a role in the rise of political Islamist organizations in Tunisia. For example, in Egypt in the 1970s, Anwar Sadat was in power. Looking to have closer relationships with Islamists (as long as they would not involve themselves in political matters in Egypt), he released many members of the Muslim Brotherhood from jail. Many of them went to Tunisia, and began working with local Islamists. As they continued to rise in influence in the country, they looked to speak out more against the government. They did this in the late 1970s, following government repression of the labor union in Tunisia in 1978, as well as following the events of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (Alexander, 2012).
Ennahda Following The End of Bourguiba
In 1981, the Islamists came together to form a party called the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI). The MTI was able to be an organization for conservative Tunisians who were frustrated with how they were treated during the tenure of Habib Bourguiba (Marks, 2015). Because of their rise in influence, and because of concern for their policies, Bourguiba would not allow the organization to be legally recognized. And thus, because “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” (Alexander, 2012: 41).
But, Bourguiba was taken out of power in by Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in 1987. During the early years of Ben Ali, the MTI tried to become recognized again. Because of Tunisian law, they took out any direct religious reference in their name, and rebranded to the Ennahda (Renaissance) Party (Alexander, 2012). And while Ben Ali did not grant them the official status as a party–something that Ennahda wanted, he did not want to upset the many Tunisians who backed Ennahda, and thus, allowed them to run in elections without the official Ennahda name (Alexander, 2012). However, after a strong electoral showing in the 1989 Parliamentary elections (even though Ennahda members were running as independents), this outcome concerned Ben Ali, who in turn began “accusing Ennahda of orchestrating an attack on a ruling party office in 1991. Tunisian military courts subsequently convicted 265 of the party’s members on charges of planning a coup” (El-Issawi, 2011).
Thus, throughout the 1990s, Ennahda, nor other political parties, had much success operating in Tunisian society. This was in large part due to the oppressive political policies of Ben Ali. He made it very difficult for parties to be formed, to be recognized, and to campaign. In addition, he controlled many in the judiciary and the police, and thus used this power to oppress any political challengers. Furthermore, as Marks (2015) writes,
Bourguiba and Ben Ali, in turn, sensed a political threat in Ennahda’s religious rejoinders, and sought to vilify the group as extremist and even terrorist in nature. After aborting Ennahda-affiliated independents’ attempts to contest the 1989 elections, Ben Ali reneged on promises to initiate a democratic ‘changement’ in Tunisia. Instead he reversed course, cracking down on opposition activists and using electoral lists to round up party members and their families. Many Nahdawis (Ennahda members) fled the country for exile, mainly to Western European countries. Thousands more who remained in Tunisia were subjected to various forms of regime-sponsored abuse in following decades, including blacklisting from employment and educational opportunities and police harassment which sometimes involved sexual abuse and torture (2).
However, it was in 2010 with the protests in Tunisia that began what is known as the Arab uprisings. Here, protesters went to social media and to the streets and organized against the government. And, in 2011, after Ben Ali resigned from office, Ennahda, as well as other parties, began operating more freely in the political space. Along with this, shortly after, they began preparing for a later 2011 election, the first democratic election of its kind in Tunisia.
2011 Tunisian Elections and Subsequent Rule
Having the freedom to operate politically in Tunisia following the overthrow of Ben Ali, Ennahda began campaigning for the 2011 parliamentary elections. Given their popularity amongst many Tunisians at the time, as well as the splitting of many of the secular votes amongst different parties, Ennahda was able to win the 2011 parliamentary elections with 41 percent of the total vote.
Following these elections, Ennahda was now the top political party in control of the Tunisian government. However, as we shall discuss below, their time as the top party in power was short lived. It was in that latter half of 2013 that the government resigned after political pressure by opposition groups. Much of this stemmed from what was viewed to be ineffectiveness in combatting terrorism in Tunisia, as well as not being able to fix the economy.
Ennahda Steps Down
In 2013, the Ennahda government stepped down, giving the state to a technocratic government. Citizens were protesting what they saw as an ineffective regime that was unable to stop terrorism in the country, as well as being unable to improve the economy. One of the points of frustration was in late July, when extremists killed Mohamed Brahmi, who was a key opposition leader. Following this, “Protesters from diverse secular parties shouted “Down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” referring to Ennahda, the Islamist ruling party in Tunisia. The protests force the closure of banks and stores, while all flights from the capital were canceled” (Wilson Center, 2014). And although Ennahda did work to arrest many extremists (Huffington Post, 2013), it was not enough for opposition forces. With regards to the political assassinations, it seems that these attacks were done so as to stop Tunisia’s democratic transition. However, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi was quoted as saying that “Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario. We will hold on” (Wilson Center, 2014).
In late September, 2013, “Ennahda became the first democratically elected Islamist party to voluntarily accept a plan to relinquish power” (Wilson Center, 2014). And while some within Ennahda were highly critical of this action, the leaders felt that this was necessary for the long term future of Tunisia. In fact, the Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalam was quoted as saying that “We are not ashamed of these concessions because they are needed by Tunisia and to secure our democratic experience so that Tunisia can reach a safe shore” (Wilson Center, 2014). Then, in October, following their willingness to give up power, they began talks for the new technocratic government. And it was on December 21st that “businessman Mehdi Jomaa was named caretaker prime minister after months of difficult negotiations between Ennahda and the secular opposition” (Wilson Center, 2014).
Given the rarity of a government willing to give up power outside of elections, many wondered why Ennahda would be willing to do it. It seems that they were concerned about the future of Tunisia, and thus, in part realized the importance of solving some of Tunisia’s issues with regards to terrorism and the economy.
2014 Tunisian Elections
Ennahda ran in the 2014 elections, but was defeated by the secular Nidaa Tounes. However, even though they lost, they still do receive 69 seats. Then in 2015, they ended up as part of a unity government with Nidaa Tounes. As discussed here, some in both parties were not happy with these events. For many secularists, they were excited to see Ennahda resign in 2013, but do not like that they are currently in the unity government.
And for Ennahda, it is argued that they were willing to step down not because they don’t want power, but rather, because they saw what happened in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, and wanted to avoid a similar fate. In fact, it seems that their willingness to step down was quite strategic. As Fakir (2014) explains,
“Ennahda’s leadership seems to have internalized an important lesson from the catastrophic experience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which had prioritized a quick ascent to power over a long-term strategy to gain broad appeal and entrench itself in the political system—through efforts beyond just winning elections. Ennahda has focused its efforts on how to establish lasting political institutions. Its leaders understand that the party will benefit in the long run from promoting a viable pluralistic political system in which it makes use of its electoral popularity but remains insulated from an Egyptian-style reaction from the old security state. This type of strategy requires long-term thinking focused on building its support base and enhancing its political and governance credentials while embracing pluralistic electoral politics. As a result, Ennahda members believe that regardless of the results of the elections, the party will maintain a role in national politics.”
Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes
Ennahda has been critical of Nidaa Tounes, in part because amongst their party are former members of the Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali regime; “Such prospects particularly concern Ennahda activists, an estimated 30,000 of whom endured politically motivated detention and abuses including torture during the early 1990s” (Marks, 2014). Some of their concerns are also based on more recent actions by the technocratic government (who was in power until the formation of the unity government in 2015). For example, “Already, under the technocratic government of the…prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa [in 2014], more than 155 non-governmental organisations were arbitrarily closed this summer and youths, some of whom identify as Salafists, have complained of arbitrary police round-ups justified by reference to the terrorist threat, which Tunisian media emphasizes ceaselessly” (Marks, 2014). Some within Ennahda were also upset that the leaders of the party were not willing to support a law that banned members of the RCD, which was Ben Ali’s party. They worry that the Beji Caid Essebi, who is the president of Tunisia, will try to crackdown on political Islamists such as Ennahda (Marks, 2014).
Political Positions of Ennahda
There have been many questions (from secularists, and others) about what Ennahda’s political goals are. One of the most noted concerns by secularists was that Ennahda, once in government, would push for a greater level of Islam within the state. In fact, much of the reason that Ennahda was asked to resign had to do with a lack of confidence among many political opposition groups, but also a vast majority within Tunisian civil society, who no longer felt that this party was able to effectively govern Tunisia (Ottaway, 2013).
The Ennahda party has continued to say that they are strongly supportive of a civil state in Tunisia. They have spoken such positions for over a decade now. As Ottaway (2013) points out, “Ennahda’s commitment to a civil state dates back to 2005 when together with secular opposition parties in the “18 October Collective,” it drafted a reform program declaring “a civil state built on republican doctrines and human rights” the only acceptable basis for a new Tunisia. The movement’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, continues to reaffirm this commitment despite huge doubts among secularists that he really is” (1). Still, it would be wrong to say that everyone in the Islamist organization was fully supportive of a secular civil society. In fact, one of the strongest criticisms against Ennahda was that once they group was elected as the main party in the 2011 Tunisian elections, that some of the hardline members continued to push for an Islamist state. Not only that, but the belief was also that the centrists were not as critical of these moves (Ottaway, 2013).
Moreover, Ennahda was in disagreement with the secular parties over what the new Tunisian constitution would look like. Because of the debates on how much Islam would be at the center (and within) the constitution, the initial government was unable to pass an agreed upon constitution (Ottaway, 2013). All of these developments led to further frustrations among secular currents in the state (Ottaway, 2013).
Rachid Ghannouchi was the founder of the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), which today is Ennahda. Ghannouchi is seen by many as a moderate Islamist willing to work with seculars on establishing a Tunisian state within the confines of a civil state model. He was often critical of the hardliners within his party, challenging their repeated attempts at having more Islam within the constitution and within the state (Ottaway, 2013). However, this hurt his power within the party (at least by those on the right), and also with the secularists (Ottaway, 2013), who did not see adequate reforms from the party. This sort of politicking could be seen with regards to the inclusion of a reference to Islam in the Tunisian constitution. Many of the hardliners wanted to ensure that Tunisia would be under shariah (Islamic law), Ghannouchi worked to ensure that this desire was not reached, arguing that the Tunisian constitution needed to have consensus support (El-Issawi, 2011). However, the hardliners were still able to include an article (141) in which they said that Islam was “the religion of the Tunisian state” (Ottaway, 2013). It was during the summer 2013 talks with the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet that Ennahda was willing to remove this article from consideration (Ottaway, 2013).
Ghannouchi and the Salafi Jihadists in Tunisia
In addition, secularists were also unhappy with how they perceived Ghannouchi to approach the hardline and violent Salafi elements of Tunisia. As Ottaway (2013) writes, “Secularists blame Ghannouchi for coddling Ennahda’s most militant Islamists far too long as well as extremist Salafis who attacked Western-style art exhibits, anti-Islamist movies, bars serving alcohol, and secularist gatherings with impunity. Ghannouchi also defended the militant Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, which has been involved in assaults on secularist meetings and rallies” (2).
In the early months following the uprisings, Ennahda saw the young Salafi jihadists as products of the repressive systems of Bourguiba and Ben Ali: “Because Bourguiba had side-lined the Zaytouna (Tunisia’s historic center of religious learning, similar to Egypt’s al- Azhar) and Ben Ali had vehemently supressed moderate Islamists and weakened the quality of Arabic language and religious education in public schools, a whole generation of young people had – they argued – grown up with no locally legitimate model of religiosity. Many in Ennahda felt that this dearth of religious knowledge created an educational void that rendered young Tunisians vulnerable to Wahhabi-inspired Salafi literalism” (Marks, 2015: 2).
Scholars argue that Ghannouchi took a much stronger position against the Salafi currents following the 2012 attacks on the United States embassy in Benghazi, and also the American school located in Tunis in September, 2012 (Ottaway, 2013). Ghannouchi first would argue that these violent individuals could be brought back into the fold of Islam through education (such as the establishment of religious education (Zaytouna)) (Marks, 2015: 5), and seemed to believe that by inclusion in the democratic political process, that these individuals would move away from violence (Marks, 2015).
Ghounnouchi even met with the younger Salafis and urged them to move “slowly, slowly,” instead of immediate demands and results (Marks, 2015). However, Ghounnouchi and many members of Ennahda have since changed their position, now instead viewing Tunisia as a country at war with these jihadist groups (Ottaway, 2013). The issue for many of the secularists in the country was that Ennahda did not act early enough, and fast enough, against such groups (Marks, 2015).
Ennadha and Other Islamist Organizations
Many have also wondered how else Ennahda viewed itself, namely, what sort of Islamist organization is this group. Within this question often sat another one, which was whether Ennahda viewed themselves in a similar fashion to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In very important research done by Monica Marks (2015), she interviewed 72 Ennahda members in the summer of 2011, looking to understand the goals and interest of the organization. She writes that “To my surprise at the time, not a single respondent listed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as an inspiring example. Very few Nahdawis even mentioned the Egyptian Brotherhood unless specifically prompted to do so. The vast majority of respondents said Turkey’s AK Parti, which they perceived at the time as representing a winning combination of piety, prosperity, and democratic credibility, represented the model most relevant for Ennahda. Others said Tunisia would carve out its own model, possibly taking inspiration from the German Christian Democrats or Turkey’s AK Parti. Most appeared unfamiliar with smaller regional Islamist parties, such as Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) and characterized theocratically oriented regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran as dangerously hypocritical models to avoid” (2). Thus, it seems that for many of the Ennahda members, they were looking for a moderate Islamist-democracy model, something quite evident with other Islamist political parties in North Africa, the Middle East, as well as other parts of the ‘Muslim World.’ In fact, many of the members of Ennahda felt that Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood did not do enough to show the world the compatibility of Islam and democracy (Marks, 2015).
Ghannouchi and many others within Ennahda seem to feel that Islam should not be force on society, but that it should be available through mediums such as education (Marks, 2015). Ghannouchi himself has said that he has preferred an economic model of society like Scandinavia. Here is a video below of an Al Jazeera interview with Rachid Ghannouchi in which the interviewer Hehdi Hasan asked him a series of questions about Ennahda’s goals, Ghannouchi’s views of the direction of Tunisian democracy, among other matters.
El-Issawi, F. (2011). The Tunisian Transition: The Evolving Face of the Second Republic. Londown School of Economics, pages 18-22. Available Online: http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/SR011/FINAL_LSE_IDEAS__TheTunisianTransition_El-Issawi.pdf
Marks, M. (2015). Tunisia’s Ennahda: Rethnking Islamism in the context of ISIS and the Egyptian coup. Brookings. Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. August 2015. Available Online: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Tunisia_Marks-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Ottaway, D. (2013). Tunisia’s Islamist-Led Democracy Founders. Wilson Center, Viewpoints, No. 43, October 2013. Pages 1-3. Available Online: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/tunisias_islamist_led_democracy_founders.pdf