Ten years ago, the Islamists’ victory in the first truly democratic elections in Tunisia was one of the most unexpected – and perhaps unintended – consequences of the so-called ‘Jasmine revolution’.
After decades of secrecy, exile and repression, Ennahda finally was legalized in March 2011 and became an integral part of the Tunisian political scene. Except for brief interludes of caretaker governments, it has since continuously been the incumbent party within different coalition governments and never stopped evolving.
Since its ‘official’ creation in 1981, Ennahda’s transformation towards moderation – commonly interpreted as a departure from the original Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s guiding principles for a shift towards a liberal democratic agenda – has been described as a product of its time in opposition in the search for public recognition. To the surprise of many, Ennahda has remained ‘moderate' even when it gained power.
When discussing the evolution of Ennahda from 2011 onwards, two specific junctures deserve special attention. Firstly, there was the series of strategic decisions the party made to overcome the risky political stalemate in 2013 changing course from the early post-revolutionary period. Secondly, the movement’s official transformation into a party of Muslim democrats in 2016.
Soon after the uprisings, Ennahda campaigned on the basis of its status as an outsider that represented a clean break with the existing regime, pursuing the goals of the thawra (revolution). Yet, as soon as it took office, the Muslim-oriented party hardened its position on a number of highly debated issues during the constitution-making phase. These included the constitutionalization of the Shari’a (Islamic law), the criminalization of blasphemy and the promotion of the role of women as ‘complementary’ and not equal to that of men. Not least, the party was heavily criticized for the soft line it had originally taken towards Salifists. In doing so, it corroborated allegations of hiding its agenda of Islamization through a double discourse, and was held politically responsible for the security vacuum in the country.
Indeed, the combination of critical events, domestically and externally, nurtured a climate of suspicion and de-legitimation, putting Ennahda in a weaker bargaining position from its unprecedented position of strength. Ennahda, increasingly challenged at home by competing parties and street protests, and with an eye on the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2013 military coup in Egypt as well as on the looming prospects of a Libyan-style scenario due to extreme polarisation and the phantom of ISIS, significantly reorient itself towards a self-restraining formula.
The latter has to be understood in terms of three prevailing lines of conduct to dispel fears of hegemonic aspirations and radicalization: first is the readiness to negotiate and compromise with its then-rising challenger Nidaa Tounes, by setting aside not only ideological rivalries but also by renouncing pro-revolutionary claims while coming to terms with old regime elites around Nidaa. Second is a proactive, reassuring attitude towards its genuine, intimate commitment to (liberal) democracy and rejection of jihadism. Third is the party’s ‘self-containment’ with regard to public office, that is a deliberate renunciation to maximize its presence in institutional positions so as not to appear greedy for power.
In fact, by the end of 2013, Ennahda’s leadership had changed its mind on a number of policy questions. For instance, it had decided to forego any hard-line stance on constitutional matters, to outlaw jihadist-Salafist groups, to rehabilitate people from the ancient regime and to formally relinquish power in January 2014. Likewise, it began to emphasise its home-grown characteristics, and its specific heritage as embodied by the idea of Tunisianité, whilst dropping troublesome associations with other Islamist forces. Indeed, while Ennahda was already trying to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood before 2013, this separation became even more evident after the military had toppled the MB-led government in Egypt, and after MB-backed groups fighting in Libya and Syria became radicalized. At the same time, Ennahda dropped its support for the model enshrined by the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), when the latter came to be associated with illiberalism and despotism, after having praised it beforehand as a successful model for other Islamist parties.
These shifting behaviours all paved the way for Ennahda’s landmark congress in 2016, when it ‘specialized’ as a civil (madani) party officially abandoning the preaching activities. This functional separation between the religious movement (haraka) and the party (hizb) marked a milestone in Ennahda’s history as a two-in-one entity.
The immediate payoff was uncertain at best. On the one hand, this trajectory helped the party guarantee its political survival in an increasingly hostile environment; on the other hand, it also corresponded to a looser identity and a departure from those revolutionary stances which alienated part of its base, and created considerable disagreement within its rank and file.
Indeed, different currents have strengthened within Ennahda – which too often has been wrongly considered as a monolithic bloc – not least in opposition to Rashid Ghannouchi’s cumbersome and centralising leadership. In parallel, Ennahda has seen its electoral success shrink. From an astounding 37% in 2011 (89 seats), to 27% of the votes in 2014 (69 seats) and only 19% in the most recent 2019 elections (52 seats). On the one hand, Ennahda’s declining popularity reflects public discontent with its handling of the economy. Neoliberal in orientation and keen to portray itself as business-friendly, Ennahda failed to deliver on its promises of social justice – one of the pillars of its platform and a key demand from the revolution. More broadly, it did not enact genuine projects of structural, and socio-economic reform during its years in government, still less in ‘Islamic’ terms.
On the other hand, Ennahda paid for its association with the establishment – increasingly perceived as a gang of self-serving entities – and the politics of consensus and compromise ‘at all costs’, which stabilized the country but prevented necessary reforms.
To be fair, the declining popular strength of the party partly mirrors a broader regional trend: data from Arab Barometer show that trust in Islamic parties has fallen dramatically, from 35% in 2013 to 20% in 2018. Ennahda remains the biggest party in Tunisia, though recent polls on voting intentions show an incredible rise of the nationalist right-wing Free Destourian party. Lastly, Ennahda lost its ‘monopoly’ on religious credentials – however ambiguously molded – as in 2019 the conservative Islamists of Al Karama coalition, currently its ally, entered the parliament.
In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, Ennahda resumed a low profile and ‘standby’ mode. However, it has to significantly redefine its strategy to keep up with enduring, pressing societal, political and economic challenges.
This ISPI Commentary is partly based on the author’s forthcoming article: “Learning mechanisms within an Islamist party: Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement between domestic and regional balances”, in Contemporary Politics, Taylor & Francis.