Tunisia’s Islamists: Real Reform or Hidden Agendas?

A woman holds a portrait of her son who was tortured and murdered, demanding the trial of all involved, during a meeting of the families of Islamist political prisoners. (Photo: AFP - Fethi Belaid)

By: Khelil Bouarrouj

Published Monday, September 5, 2011

Shortly after the ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, some Tunisian youth declared on Facebook that many of the exiled Islamists will return to Tunisia chanting “bread, water, and four women.” It was a play on the early revolutionary battle cry of “bread, water, and no Ben Ali” (both expressions rhyme in Arabic). Tunisia was the only Arab nation that outlawed polygamy as stated in its 1956 Personal Status Code Law. Now the country’s secularists fear that Islamists will try to undo the legacy of former President Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s secular independence leader.

At the forefront of the Islamist current in Tunisia is Hizb al-Nahda (Renaissance Party) and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi. Founded during Bourguiba’s reign as Harakat al-Ittijah al-Islami (Movement of the Islamic Direction), the party — according to its detractors — adopted the title al-Nahda to appear less religious under Ben Ali. Al-Nahda was allowed to compete in the 1989 legislative elections, but was fiercely repressed in the early 1990s, with much of its leadership jailed or exiled, including Ghannouchi. But Ghannouchi wasted no time in celebrating the fall of the dictator and announced his intention to return after two decades of exile in London. That return was immediately greeted with anxiety among many on the free-wheeling Tunisian coast.

Weeks away from the first post-revolution election next October, al-Nahda appears to be the best organized party with a schedule of rallies that no other political organization can match. Al-Nahda is quite visible on the national scene, while Tunisia’s many new political parties are still laying the groundwork, and long-existing opposition parties have yet to build the national infrastructure that al-Nahda has developed. No doubt al-Nahda is aided by its faithful elders who kept a low-key profile under Ben Ali but are now eager and ready to revitalize the party.

In its bid for an October victory, al-Nahda’s spokespeople have sought to placate many doubtful Tunisians with assurances that they do not intend to amend the Status Code, overturn the ban on polygamy, even ruling out the adoption Sharia (Islamic law). They also declared their support for democracy. For whatever they’re worth, such statements from an Islamist party say a lot about the climate in Tunisia where even politically ambitious Islamists feel the need to placate concerns about implementing Sharia. By way of contrast, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood face no such inhibitions. That bodes well not only for Tunisia, but for the rest of the Arab world as well. As the seat of the Arab Spring, Tunisia's own transition to democracy may afford further lessons to their Arab compatriots. If Tunisia establishes a liberal democracy, it could end up setting the parameters for future transitions.

But it is precisely this type of liberalism that many fear is endangered with the advent of al-Nahda. The party dismisses such fears as unfounded. “We are moderate and believe in equality,” they respond, an indication they are aware of the difficulty they face in securing an electoral majority. A more probable electoral outcome may be one where al-Nahda is the single largest party, but a coalition of secular center-left and center-right parties dominate. Thus whatever the party’s true ambitions, it will be restrained. But it is worth scrutinizing what al-Nahda’s assurances are worth.

On women’s rights, for example, al-Nahda recently issued a party communiqué which stated that women are free to wear whatever they wish, veil or no veil, but then added that such dress should respect the sensibilities of others.

And that’s the rub. Al-Nahda may sound conspicuously liberal or ‘moderate,’ but the party must be evaluated by its caveats. And here the party raises serious concerns. Al-Nahda would like to give the impression of respecting the right of women to dress as they choose, only to be undercut in a later passage which all but nullifies the very notion of rights.

Another matter raises further worries. In April, Tunisian filmmaker Nouri Bouzid was struck in the head with a metal bar in daylight by a crazed fanatic. The perpetrator fled the scene. The attack was shortly after Bouzid gave a radio interview calling for a secular constitution and criticizing political Islam. His ‘crime’ may also have been the 2006 film/documentary The Making Of that cast a negative light on the manipulative style of Islamic fanatical recruiters without, it should be emphasized, criticizing Islam or adopting any irreligious motifs.

The onus quickly fell on al-Nahda, as the main Islamist voice, to state its commitment to a free culture. The party produced the following statement by Ghannouchi himself: "Art is linked to the values and traditions of each society, and no one should take away freedom of expression through art, as long as it reflects those traditions (my italics)." Such ambivalent statements lead many Tunisians to harbor doubts about al-Nahda’s commitment to democracy. “They’re doing doublespeak, and everyone knows it,” Ibrahim Letaief, radio host at Mosaique FM, told The New York Times.

What makes the party’s statement more alarming is that the attack came only days after fundamentalist rapper Mohamed Eljandoubi (known as Psyco M) declared at an al-Nahda rally that Bouzid merits the death penalty for his alleged apostasy. There may be no connection between the hit-and-run and the inane ravings of a reckless youth (the latter’s comments were initially obscure and attracted attention after the fact), but many took umbrage that neither attendees nor the party committee challenged the remarks.

The often politically ambiguous nature of al-Nahda is another source of anxiety among liberal and secular Tunisians. “The least that one can say is that they are ambiguous,” Maya Jribi, the Secretary General of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the nation’s most prominent center-left party, recently said. University of Delaware professor Muqtedar Khan recently interviewed Ghannouchi about the party's election platform. Ghannouchi refused to “express a commitment to defending the rights of those who do not vote for al-Nahda.”

In other ways, however, the party has sought to ameliorate concerns. But many doubt the sincerity of such rhetoric. For instance, al-Nahda has expressed a willingness to engage in ‘consensus’ governance. Executive Committee member Ziyah Djoulati recently said that such an approach is necessary for entrenching democratic institutions. But the party was publicly irritated by the news delaying the forthcoming election originally planned for July. The organizing committee tasked with enacting a new voter roll claimed it needed more time to prepare and train election monitors. Al-Nahda reluctantly went along with the delay. Ghannouchi told the Financial Times of London, “We had no other choice; we were forced to accept.” But he added that he doubted the stated “technical reasons” and “we have a feeling that there is an attempt to find other ways” to delay the election.

One may understand al-Nahda’s fear of a delayed election (a fear not exclusive to the party). Many party elders believe that the secular old guard that repressed them for so long, and now fears that they will lose power, is seeking to sabotage their electoral hopes. But, conversely, many secular Tunisians worry that al-Nahda’s rush to the polls and opposition to a delayed vote was based on the shrewd calculation that the earlier the vote the more they are likely to win.

Al-Nahda is one of only three Tunisian parties to be recognized by at least 20 percent of the electorate, according to polls. It has a built-in base, while rival nascent parties are still laying the groundwork and remain ill-equipped to wage elections. Not surprisingly, many liberal and secular parties welcomed the delay. Many secular Tunisians believe al-Nahda’s eagerness for an early poll hinted at an ambition to consolidate its support and sideline much of the opposition, and thus belies its declared aspiration to ‘consensus.’

Lastly, many Tunisians note the disparity between the rhetorical liberalism adopted by the party leadership and the more intolerant and dogmatic rank-and-file members. Even if the leadership is sincere, many question its ability to constrain the party’s more conservative elements, which may subsequently dethrone the moderate bloc.

An alarmist tone is more confusing than clarifying. Obstinate hostility to a party likely to emerge as one of the most popular will surely lead to domestic polarization, but any willingness to embrace al-Nahda’s role in the political process must be done with a heavy dose of caution.

Al-Nahda does not have any past record of seeking to implement a fundamentalist code of Islamic conduct. The party repeatedly states that it looks to Turkey’s mildly Islamist AK party, which has a record of nearly a decade in government. Many al-Nahda officials emphasize Islamic values — which they say are compatible with liberal democracy and pluralism — without rigid enforcement of Sharia.

Take the contentious issue of alcohol consumption. Ghannouchi himself has said that his party's aim “will not be to cut supply of alcohol, but to reduce demand.” Turkey’s recent decision to raise sin taxes may foreshadow al-Nahda’s possible efforts to reduce consumption. And many supporters will reasonably note that Western governments often appear obsessed with limiting smoking through “No Smoking” zones and high cigarette taxes. If al-Nahda singles out the bottle instead of the pack, is the former more illiberal than the latter? Pick your poison.

All this may be well and good. Many party committee members stress that years in exile and political suppression convinced many in al-Nahda to embrace a genuinely liberal approach. But the tendency for conflicting messages can be found in statements by senior officials. Ali Larayedh, who was imprisoned and subjected to torture for 14 years, one of the most prominent spokespeople of al-Nahda, told The New York Times in January that al-Nahda is “more liberal” than AK and alcohol need not be restricted. But another party official stated in a later interview that, while the party has no goal to ban alcohol anytime soon, future prohibition is possible.

In any case, the birth of a new Arab democracy mandates a cautious approach towards all political parties, especially those that are ideologically predisposed to meddling in the private sphere. Reports that many ex-RCD (Ben Ali's defunct ruling party) members have signed up with their former Islamist nemesis is an additional alarming sign of things to come. Tunisians and all those inclined to give Islamists the proverbial benefit of the doubt should ponder the Arab proverb that says: “Tear off the curtain of doubt by questions.”

Khelil Bouarrouj is a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, New York.

Comments

A very well-written article, at least from the language point of view. Most of the articles translated from Arabic on the Al Akhbar English site appear weak and are slightly irritating to read. Perhaps Khelil Bouarrouj can contribute to Al Akhbar as a translator and editor, in addition to his beautiful writing.

The writer's description of the Nahda's party statements on alcholol reminds me of a statement made to BBC World's Zeinab Badawi by Dr Eryan, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who assured Badawi that even under the rule of the Brotherhood, alcohol production and consumption would continue in Egypt, but then he was ambiguous as to whether this would be restricted to non-Muslims. So again, the Islamists seem to be walking a tightrope in many of these post-revolutionary contexts, and we will only have to wait and see.

Hi Samar,

This is Khelil. Thanks for your kind words. And, yes, the MB's words are quite typical of Islamist political rhetoric, saying Yes and No at the same time

Hi Khelil. This is Samar again. Strangely enough there is a recent article by Issam el Eryan on the al-akhbar Englisb website. Of course, the translation is lousy and the article is painful to read, but the main problem is that the whole article is designed to convince the reader that post-revolutionary Egypt will be different- no more terrorism and no more attacking Western countries- and this, he seems to suggest applies to all these post-revolutionary states. Nice news for the west I suppose, but what is he saying to his own people?

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