Putting the Islamist “win” in Tunisia in Context

by Jeffry R. Halverson

Put him in power and see how wise he is.

– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

I have spent an inordinate amount of time studying Islamist ideologues and their ideas during my relatively short lifetime. I’ve never read War and Peace, but I have read Milestones and The Neglected Duty. In recent months, the Tunisian Islamist and leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, has occupied a good deal of my attention. And as regular readers of the Comops Journal may know, I recently returned from traveling around Tunisia. The election results have since been tallied there, and Ghannouchi’s party, Ennahda, won the most seats of any party in the 217 seat constituent assembly. The victory has resulted in a lot of talk about what the old Islamist will do now, and how his party will shape the future of the new Tunisia. In my view, Ennahda’s electoral victory is best understood as a reassertion of a long-marginalized Arab-Muslim identity, and should not be treated as a call for a so-called “Islamic state.” Indeed, I see Ennahda’s rise as a temporary one, and it will quickly return to the ranks of the other parties in future elections. For those interested, I previously wrote about the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in post-revolutionary Egypt.

If you have yet to review the results of the October 23rd election, Ennahda took 90 seats (42% of all seats), while the Congress for the Republic took 30 seats, Ettakatol took 21, Aridha Chaabia took 19 (currently disputed), and 17 seats went to the PDP. No other party won more than 5 seats. For all you Cold War enthusiasts, Tunisia’s Communist party took 3 seats. Overall, twenty-six parties total (including independent lists) won at least 1 seat (my thanks to Tunisia Live for great coverage).

Tunisia’s election, the first of the Arab Spring revolutions, went remarkably well (the Aridha Chaabia issue aside), and it will undoubtedly serve as a model for others in the Arab world, especially Egypt and Libya. These were not parliamentary or presidential elections though. They chose members of the assembly that will craft a new constitution and select a new interim president until the next round of elections (in a year or so). Voters chose from an enormous number (over 100) of “lists,” and based on the number of votes achieved for these lists, a certain number of seats were awarded. Due to this system, it was a given that a coalition would have to emerge and no single party could dominate via absolute majority. Nevertheless, Ennahda’s victory exceeded expectations.

During my time in Tunisia, my peers there thought that Ennahda would win no more than 30% of the seats. The numbers suggest that my colleagues may have been out-of-touch with the extent to which Tunisians profess an Arab-Muslim identity. Ennahda led in nearly every district, but only won an outright majority in the districts of Gabés (Ghannouchi’s hometown) and Tataouine, as well as among the expat community in Italy. Ennahda also had a particularly strong showing in Tunisia’s “second city,” Sfax.

Rachid Ghannouchi, now in his 70s, has not chosen to pursue a political office (as of yet). He appears content to serve as the leader and guide of Ennahda, but his political influence will still hold tremendous sway. History has provided numerous examples of terrible Islamist regimes that rise to political power, most obviously the Taliban. Those examples fail to tell the whole story however. Ghannouchi is certainly at the opposite end of the Islamist spectrum from Mullah Omar. He is definitely a social conservative and quick to condemn anything he deems offensive to his vision of Islam, but he has also repeatedly demonstrated a surprising degree of flexibility, pragmatism, and revision in his viewpoints throughout his lifetime. He is far closer to the teachings of Malik Bennabi (d. 1973) than he is to Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328). His party’s willingness to participate in the democratic process and engage secular parties alone has put him at odds with the most hardline Islamists.

Islamism, I often tell students, thrives in abstraction, but it quickly shows its weaknesses and inadequacies when it comes to the dirty details of governance. It is one thing to tell the crowds that Islam is the solution to a country’s economic woes, and quite another thing to find people jobs and lead them out of poverty. Furthermore, pledges of support for “sharia” are often little more than populist fluff, albeit with potentially disastrous results. Even if one accepts the eternal applicability of the legal content scattered throughout Islam’s most sacred texts, the fact remains that those texts leave much to be desired when governing a 21st century nation-state. This fact generally presents a great dilemma for Islamists and it has even motivated some groups to drag their countries back to a more primitive time to try and resolve it.

Ghannouchi (center) greets Erdogan (right) in Tunis during a recent visit

Ghannouchi has repeatedly said that Turkey’s ruling AKP is the model that Ennahda will follow, and I have no reason, at this time, to doubt the sincerity of his words. Indeed, Turkey and Tunisia, despite the ethno-cultural distinctions, share a fair deal in common with regards to their modern histories. Former Tunisian President, Habib Bourguiba, has often been described as an “Arab Atatürk.” The AKP in Turkey has essentially been a reassertion of Turkey’s Muslim identity and heritage in the public sphere after it was forcefully cloistered away by Kemalists for decades. I see Ghannouchi and Ennahda in this same framework. The electoral success of Ennahda reflects the desire to reassert an Arab-Muslim identity in Tunisia after decades of being pushed into the private sphere by the secularist powers of the Neo-Destour/RCD. Ennahda’s rise has little or nothing to do with a desire to see headscarves forced onto women or hands of thieves amputated.

On a more mundane level, Ennahda’s victory also reflects the simple fact that the party has strong anti-RCD credentials, it was well organized, and it was widely known among the people. There were many new parties in the wake of the revolution (over 130 lists at one point) and few people knew anything about their platforms. Furthermore, many of the parties shared a center-left ideology, splitting those votes among multiple parties, while Ennahda essentially monopolized the religious identity vote.

Now that Ennahda has been granted political power, the people will expect them to resolve their problems and concerns, which are numerous. The economy in particular will loom large in the years ahead. It remains to be seen whether Ennahda can offer solutions beyond pious slogans and public displays of religiosity. In fact, I see a steady decrease in support for Ennahda over ensuing elections, barring a miraculous economic revival (pun intended).

Lastly, I wish to convey the idea that there is an important positive dimension to the election victory of Ennahda, as well as the earlier victories of the AKP in Turkey. Admittedly, I write this as someone who does not have to live under such parties, so keep that in mind. The silver lining here is that these parties offer a viable alternative for peoples who seek a greater public role for Islam in their societies, in contrast to the militant reactionary movements we are all too familiar with.

When Islamists point to Erdogan and the AKP as a model to follow, rather than Ayman al-Zawahiri or Mullah Omar and the “Islamic emirate” of Taliban-era Afghanistan, this is most certainly a positive. Dialogue and cooperation with such parties should be encouraged, not dismissed on the grounds of ideological allegiances. Indeed, if Western countries were to suddenly turn away from Tunisia on the basis of an Islamist party’s electoral success, it would only help the hardliners and further support the erroneous view that militancy and anti-Western sentiment is the best strategy for contemporary Muslim societies. Furthermore, power means responsibility and accountability, and Tunisians will now “see how wise” the old Islamist from Gabés really is.

* Jeffry R. Halverson is an Islamic studies scholar and an Assistant Research Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author of Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam (Potomac 2012), and co-author of Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).

2 Responses to “Putting the Islamist “win” in Tunisia in Context”

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  1. Erik says:

    Very good piece. I’d be interested in what Halverson thinks about Ennahdha’s promises to maintain the family code of Bourguiba from a comparative perspective.

    • halverson says:

      Thanks for your comment Erik. It’s a great question. The Personal Status Code established during the Bourguiba era is a real benchmark that all political parties have to come to terms with in Tunisia. Ghannouchi was late to the game when it came to accepting it, and he is still vague on some points regarding it. Generally speaking, he writes/speaks often of his concept of “Tunisian specificity,” an idea which emphasizes Tunisia as a distinct case whereby the aspirations of Islamists elsewhere do not apply. I do not see Ghannouchi and Ennahda in the short term seeking any revisions of the Code. Rather, Ennahda will likely pursue a culture of grassroots dawah over the long term aiming to foster a religious revival among the populace and revisions could occur from there, particularly the section dealing with abortion rights, among others. As you know, many Islamist factions make the status of women an immediate area of attention and it has created significant problems in the process. In Tunisia, where women enjoy arguably the best rights in the Arab world, it would be a firestorm. So I think, similar to the AKP, which put the economy at the top of its priorities, I think Ennahda will do the same and will leave the Code untouched. This subject probably deserves a blog post all on its own.