Among the many results of the “Tunisian Revolution for Dignity and Freedom,” as Tunisians have taken to calling it, has been the legalization of previously banned political parties. Arguably the most influential party in Tunisia’s new political scene is al-Nahda (Renaissance), which was previously not allowed to function legally due to its Islamist nature and was subject to strong repression in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its founder Rachid Ghannouchi returned from exile in London on January 30, shortly after former President Zine Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, in order to reconfigure the party for political participation on a level playing field.
The revolution cast aside previous laws, and al-Nahda was officially legalized by decree of the interim government on March 1, despite the fact that Article 8 of the constitution (which is due to be rewritten) prohibits political parties based on religion. From 1992 to 2011, al-Nahda was almost completely absent from Tunisia, and it played no part in the overthrow of the authoritarian regime that had stifled any serious opposition to the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). The removal of the RCD left a political vacuum in a country with a young, underemployed population; 54 percent of Tunisians are under the age of 30, and approximately 300,000 university graduates are unemployed according to Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics
Although this would seem to be a field ripe for al-Nahda recruitment, many Tunisians are cautious about the Islamist party. The youth who led the revolution have never known anything but single-party dictatorship under Ben Ali, and were not exposed to the ideas of al-Nahda. The Tunisian middle class is wary of al-Nahda, which has been accused of extremism and terrorism, in particular following the incidents in the early 1990s, when al-Nahda activists attacked an RCD office in a Tunis neighborhood, killing one civilian, and threw acid in the faces of certain individuals. The shock of these incidents still resonates today, and Ghannouchi has recently admitted
that party members committed mistakes in the past, though he stressed that those were individual acts not authorized by the party leadership.
Al-Nahda entered the new era with a flexible political discourse, seeking to turn over a new page and provide reassurance that it is committed to the values of democracy, human rights, non-violence, and the personal status code, which bans polygamy and provides for gender equality. Le Temps reported
on February 6, 2011 that Ghannouchi stated that the personal status code is derived from sharia
(Islamic law), polygamy has been determined to be illegal, the hijab
(headscarf) is a personal choice, and stoning and amputation cannot be carried out as punishments. There are some indicators, however, that al-Nahda’s stance is not so clear , including a February 17 interview
in which al-Nahda spokesman Hamadi Jebali denied having aims to implement sharia
law on one hand then went on to confirm the party’s adherence to it during the same conversation.
Al-Nahda has joined the Committee for the Protection of the Revolution formed in response to ongoing protests, which draws together at least 28 separate organizations including the General Union of Tunisian Workers and leftist movements. This dynamic coalition has strengthened the hand of protesters who staged sit-ins in Kasbah Square in front of the prime minister’s office, forcing the resignation of two cabinets viewed as too closely affiliated with the Ben Ali regime.
Al-Nahda also criticized the government formed by Beji Caid Essebsi on February 27 in response to persistent protests. Rachid Ghannouchi in particular has traded barbs with Essebsi, who held a number of prominent positions in the Ben Ali era. Ghannouchi described
the 84-year-old Essebsi as having been dusted off and brought out of the archives, and Essebsi on the day of his inauguration retorted
that the 70-year-old Ghannouchi was also from the archives, just a different box. Clearly, al-Nahda has chosen to side with the crowds in protesting against the remnants of the former regime, the makeup of the troubled government, its lackluster performance, and its reluctance to make bold decisions that keep pace with the momentum of the popular revolution.
In this context, the formation of the democratic transformation committees has been a topic of much debate. Three committees were formed initially of nonpartisan specialists: the Political Reform Committee, the Fact-Finding Committee for Excesses and Violations during Recent Events (although no timeframe is set for “recent events”), and the Fact-Finding Committee for Cases of Embezzlement and Corruption. Tunisia’s political elite has been particularly interested in the work of the Political Reform Committee because of its role in formulating the transitional laws, including the electoral code.
The Islamists officially requested a presence on the Political Reform committee, which other groups within the Committee for the Protection of the Revolution demanded should be given executive powers. The government acquiesced and in a February 18 decree renamed it the Higher Authority for the Achievement of the Revolution Objectives, Political Reform, and Transition to Democracy, and added representatives from political parties such as al-Nahda and civil society organizations, as well as other prominent figures.
Although al-Nahda has succeeded in establishing itself within the coalition pushing to consolidate the revolution, it is still challenged by internal rifts and competition from other Islamists. Disputes surfaced as the younger generation of al-Nahda members forced founding member Abd al-Fattah Morou from the leadership body in light of demands that al-Nahda be more self-critical regarding the violence it committed in the 1991 Bab Souieka incident. Morou is now openly criticizing al-Nahda and planning
to form an independent party. In addition, the official composition of al-Nahda’s executive bureau has seen significant changes, including Rachid Ghannouchi’s announcement from London that he was stepping aside from active leadership in favor of spokesman Hamadi Jebali.
Fragmentation is a real threat for al-Nahda; some 50 political parties have been legalized, some of which are openly Islamist in orientation and thus are potential competitors for al-Nahda’s traditional constituency. Al-Nahda is also faced with unexpected emergence of a Salafi youth movement, particularly Hizb al-Tahrir, which was denied legal status by the government after it openly proclaimed its primary objective to be forming an Islamic Caliphate and abolishing political parties. This growth of fundamentalist Salafism puts al-Nahda in an awkward position, and may force it to reposition itself after the Salafists have led demonstrations chanting bigoted and anti-Semitic slogans, and attacked liquor stores and unveiled women.
The question of the relationship between religion and state remains one of the core unresolved issues, and al-Nahda may have to clarify its stance on the state’s secularism in the future. It has categorically rejected the separation of religion and state, but is now presenting itself as the equivalent of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, which operates in the framework of a constitutionally secular state. Tunisian identity and Article 1 of the Constitution, which says that the religion of Tunisia is Islam, are sure to be hotly contested up through the legislative elections scheduled for July 24, when the Second Republic’s overall political and ideological direction will become clearer. For the first time in Tunisia’s history, licensed Islamist parties will take part in elections, bringing a new dynamic into political life. Tunisians will have to balance between modernism and traditionalism so as not to fall into extremism on either end.
Rajaa Basly is secretary-general of Génération Tunisie Libre. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.