January 29, 2019


Democrat or Islamist firebrand -- who is Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi? (Amberin Zaman, January 28, 2019, Al Monitor)

As proof that he is sincere about empowering women, Ghannouchi pointed to the high number of Tunisia's female mayors -- 42 out of a total 68, including Tunis' first female mayor -- who were elected on Ennahda's ticket.

"We are in an electoral year and there many accusations against Ennahda," he said. "But these are part of a media war that is designed to influence public opinion. It was the Ennahda government which declared Ansar al-Sharia to be a terrorist group and took action against them."

Nevertheless, the backlash against rising Islamic extremism coupled with continued corruption and economic stagnation took its toll. Ennahda pulled in second behind the pro-secular Nidaa Tounes in the October 2014 parliamentary elections. It then became a decidedly docile partner in a coalition that has ruled since. "Ennahda saw the limits of Tunisia's religiosity," said Lamine Benghazi, who helps run Al Bawsala, a leading Tunisian civil society organization. "The greater geopolitical trend is demonizing political Islam, and Ennahda sees Nidaa Tounes as something of a shield."

In 2016, Ghannouchi compromised further, declaring, "There is no longer any justification for political Islam in Tunisia." He said Ennahda was a party of "Muslim democrats," distinctly Tunisian in character.

"We are Tunisian Muslims who are determined to live in our age as believing Muslims," he told Al-Monitor. "There is only one Islam, but we believe it is a flexible religion that interacts with each environment with each age." The rebranding has seen Ennahda embrace modern Tunisia's founder Habib Bourguiba as a national hero, whitewashing his abuses and blaming all the horrors endured under six decades of dictatorship solely on Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The shift is an acknowledgement that political Islam has become radioactive. Just as critically, it speaks to the continued resilience of a coalition of politicians and officials left over from the Ben Ali regime, including the notorious national guard, which is attached to the Ministry of Interior. In tandem with a deeply entrenched oligarchy, the holdouts of the Ben Ali regime are determined to prevent the Islamists from establishing their own patronage networks within the bureaucracy and the business world, and they will wield and inflate the threat of Islamic extremism to that end if need be. [...]

As in Turkey, one of the dangers facing Tunisia is a smugness born from decades of repressed religiosity that continues to be mistaken for a lack of it. Outside the capital, in impoverished areas like Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, where the protests that led to Ben Ali's downfall first erupted, Islamic conservatism runs deep. Yerkes observed, "Some portion of the population would like to see a stronger role of religion within the government and public life, and Ennahda used to be the clear political party to help achieve that goal." 

Ennahda lawmakers who back Ghannouchi's moderate stance insist that such a stance is necessary if Tunisia's democracy is to survive. "Cohabitation makes us more pragmatic, and pragmatism is not a dirty word," parliamentarian Naoufel Jammali told Al-Monitor. "On the contrary it is what permitted us to become the sole democracy of all the Arab Spring countries. Cohabitation pushes us to be comfortable with the idea that we are not the sole political party in the country and that we need to work together with other parties in order to remain part of the political landscape." Islamists, leftists and secularists all have deep roots in Tunisia. "We are condemned to live together." 

But just how long will Ennahda be willing to take the back seat? The party has regained a plurality in the parliament following a steady defection of lawmakers from Nidaa Tounes, and it beat the secularists in the country's first free municipal polls that were held in May, though both were overtaken by independents, a sign of voter disaffection across the board.

With Prime Minister Youssef Chahed forming a new secularist bloc after his fallout with Essebsi and his son Hafedh, who engineered Chahed's ouster from Nidaa Tounes in June, Ennahda is poised to be kingmaker. It helped Chahed survive a vote of no confidence in November. Will it continue to throw its weight behind Chahed and International Monetary Fund-inspired reforms? And will Ghannouchi throw his hat in the ring for the presidency? The Ennahda leader is holding his cards close to his chest, saying he has no such ambitions but then leaving the door open by saying it's up to his party.

Posted by at January 29, 2019 5:59 PM