Ennahda’s recent electoral defeat against the secular Nidaa Tounes party does not signal the death of political Islam in Tunisia, writes Nishaat Ismail.
Following the Tunisian parliamentary elections on 26th October, headlines across the world have emphasized the win of secularists over the Islamists. The headline of an article published by the BBC read “Secularist Nidaa Tounes party wins Tunisia elections” Another piece from the World Post was titled “Secular party defeats Islamists in Tunisia’s elections” Headlines such as these are calculated and intend on manipulating public opinion to deem Islamist politics as inept and ultimately to brand political Islam as a failure. They also disregard the fact that Tunisia just completed its second, peaceful and genuinely competitive elections since the ousting of Ben Ali in 2011, which would have served as much more of a noteworthy header.
The secular Nidaa Tounes party won 85 of the 217 seats in parliament giving it the entitlement to name a prime minister and head a coalition government, whilst the Islamist Ennahda party won 69 seats.
These election results however, aren’t simply a triumph of secularism over Islamism and it certainly would be rash and impulsive to celebrate the death of political Islam both in Tunisia and in the region as a whole.
Both the election process and the results demonstrate the salience as opposed to the defeat of the Ennahda party and Islamist politics. After three decades of being banned, rigorously repressed, its leaders and members either in exile, in prison or marginalized in society, the party has now become a permanent fixture in Tunisian politics. Much to the disappointment of both western and regional anti-Islamists, this progression in the party’s narrative is a significant accomplishment.
Islam and politics
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Being the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has the capability to send shockwaves across the region, which is why Ennahda’s current status and the evolution it has undergone in the last four years, provides the Islamist movement in the Middle East and North Africa assurance that the political opening created after the revolution is still ajar.
A Global Attitudes Project was conducted by Pew Research looking at the role of Islam in politics and carried out surveys in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan. It found that more than eight-in-ten in Tunisia believe Islam has a major influence on their politics.
Among those who say Islam has a major influence, majorities in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey say this is a good thing. In Jordan – where most respondents believe Islam is not influential in politics – eight-in-ten see this small role for Islam as negative for their country.
These results clearly show that there is a demand for Islamic influence in the region. Further more it is evidence that Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas still have credibility and the Brotherhood in Egypt has the potential to rise to a level of political prominence once again, if it imitates steps taken by Ennahda.
End of political Islam or the end of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Despite some of the arguments that have entered the debate surrounding the “death of political Islam” particularly with regards to Egypt, many have questioned the credibility of these arguments and feel it is too early to start writing obituaries for Islamist politics in Egypt and other Arab countries, which I am in agreement with. Islamists and their movements are under constant world watch and scrutiny, so as soon as any of the groups suffer any form of setback or injury, Western observers in particular, rush to proclaim, Islamism no longer poses as a security threat-as most orientalists like to think Islamism as monolithic and consider all political Islamic groups as militant and fanatic. The western allies in the Arab world, who are eager to see Islamism wiped out in the region, reiterate these claims.
Rashid Ghannouchi claims, it is just a matter of a few steps back here and they’re in preparation for a new launch and in order to move forward, those setbacks are simply dips in an overall upward curve. The Brotherhood faced an enormous challenge after being elected into power and it is fundamental to acknowledge the obstacles they were faced with in order for us to come to a nuanced conclusion about whether political Islam has peaked.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has experienced a different fate to that of Tunisia’s Ennahda, it still provides us with crucial lessons about the future of political Islam in the Middle East. Throughout their 86 years of existence the Brotherhood have been under constant surveillance, harassment and persecution by central government. Government agents killed the founder, al-Banna in 1949 and many were arrested. In 1956, the organization was officially banned under Nasser and in 1966 Sayyid Qutb an author and theologian who is viewed to be one of the more militant members of the Brotherhood at the time was executed.
These events forced the organization to operate underground. An open affiliation with the Islamist cause entailed real risks. Considering their history and track record, the Brotherhood paranoia is not born of fantasy. Prior to coming into power it was never able to directly negotiate with the secular elites who were part of the central government. They were treated as interlopers in their own country and forced to function covertly. Its years as an underground organization fostered a bunker mentality that views outsiders as threats to be neutralized. They have always been considered the enemy by government forces, which made it difficult for Morsi to cooperate with remnants of the old regime. That is not to say the Morsi administration, were devoid of any errors.
A new era?
It is important to remember, though the current situation is tenuous and the Brotherhood have been vilified by both national and international figures and the media, it has survived 86 years of repression and marginalisation, their existence has only known how to exist whilst being under constant government watch. This very repression that has outlawed them can also be what resurrects them. The brutal force by which pro Brotherhood supporters and protestors were treated has sparked international condemnation, creating a plethora of Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers.
Both Ennahda and the Brotherhood in Egypt were novices to governance and this was apparent during their time in office. When Ennahda was allowed to rule as the head of the coalition government, they broadly failed to act upon the promises they had made and were unsuccessful in reviving the economy and in addressing the deteriorating security conditions.
The new government will be confronted with the same challenges. For example an alarming number of Tunisians have joined the so -called “Islamic State (ISIS)”. It will be vital for the government to discover why so many of its citizens are turning to radicalism and find ways to provide them with the education and jobs they urgently need.
Shadows of Ben Ali
Many tend to see the situation in Tunisia as a battle between secularists and Islamists. However, this is only part of the story. In fact, Nidaa Tounes is the party with many representatives of the old regime. Still, in order for the democratic transition to survive, it is important that old elites are somehow integrated in the process. As much as Nidaa Tounes’ victory increases the risk of the return of the old regime, it is also an opportunity to keep the transition to democracy alive.
It is important however that there is a counter-balance provided by the opposition. As Ennahda is a strong opposition, we hope it will be able to provide this counter-balance. At the same time, Ennahda also needs to respect the outcome (which Ghannouchi said he will) and thus show what is often called in democratisation theory ‘democratic moderation’. As such, it would be disastrous for democratic consolidation if Ennahda or social protest movements would challenge Nidaa Tounes and call for protests and sit ins. We hope that Ennahda learns from its performance of the past two years; in other words recognizes that people were not satisfied with their performance.
Saying this, Ennahda of course functioned better in government than the Egyptian Brotherhood; the reasons are manifold and are partially due to the political constellation and the internal structures of both Muslim Brotherhood organizations.
The democratic transition in Tunisia is still in its infant stages and very much underdeveloped, but being the first democratic transition ever to take place in the Middle East’s modern history, it is indeed worthy of commendation. It has sent out a profound message to both the Arab and western nations that political Islam is compatible with the democratic process and like millions of others I hope that Tunisia, a nation of 11 million and the valiant initiator of the Arab spring becomes a paragon of pluralism and democracy prompting other Arab countries and Islamist movements to follow suit.
Nishaat Ismail has just completed a post-graduate degree from Birkbeck University in Middle East in Global Politics: Islam, Conflict and Development (MSc). She has a BA in history from SOAS and specialises in the history and politics of the near and Middle East. She is also a blogger and contributing editor for The Moroccan Times.
You can follow Nishaat on Twitter @NishIsmail