Since coming to power last October, Ennahda’s response to religiously motivated criminal acts has been marked by confusion and reluctance to promptly prosecute the jihadi Salafis generally thought responsible. Recent attacks on the US Embassy and American School in Tunis, however, raised expectations that Ennahda might change tack—toughening its formerly lenient approach to violent strains of jihadi Salafism like Ansar al-Sharia. While the Embassy attacks tested Ennahda’s patience with jihadi Salafism, the party remains unwilling to pursue a comprehensive crackdown on the movement and will likely continue its relatively hands-off policy of integration and conciliation.
Ennahda’s motivations for adopting this accommodationist approach remain underexplored and overshadowed by a flurry of conspiratorial rumors concerning its relationship with Salafism. The party’s opponents have been eager to paint Salafis as “Ennahda’s militia.” This argument ignores major tensions between the two movements and gives short shrift to Ennahda leaders’ rationale for adopting this inclusionary approach.
Underpinning Ennahda’s integrationist strategy is its leaders’ belief that political inclusion and Islamic education provide the best means for neutralizing the potential violence of jihadi Salafism. Ennahda leaders tend to view the country’s jihadi Salafis as wayward children—younger, more confused versions of themselves who never had the chance to be properly educated in a more cerebral form of “Tunisian Islam,” which they generally describe as moderate, tolerant, and inclusive. Cracking down on young Salafis or demonizing them will, in Ennahda’s view, only serve to further marginalize and isolate them. Personal experience also shapes the now-ruling party’s views regarding political inclusion. Former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sought to malign Ennahda as a terrorist group in the 1990s, and many of the party’s leaders were imprisoned or exiled, where they seem to have internalized the notion that dialogue and political representation offer effective alternatives to extremism.
Ennahda’s commitment to educating and integrating young Salafis is reasonable, and is likely to remain the cornerstone of its approach to dealing with more militant strains of Salafi activism. However, acts of criminal violence must be met with the rule of law. Arrests, due process, and transparent trials should replace the impunity lingering on Tunisian streets, regardless of the perpetrators’ religious motivations and the political risks associated with their prosecution. Ennahda’s opponents are right to criticize the government for its hypocrisy in pursuing highly publicized show trials against artists and media activists while hesitating to charge and prosecute those responsible for the recent violence.
Ennahda’s failure to ensure security has left the party in a weak position regarding the rule of law. Beji Caid Essebsi, whose recently formed Nidaa Tunis party has rapidly corralled a growing number of center-left and secular forces, blamed the US Embassy attacks on the party’s “policy of tolerance.” President Moncef Marzouki has also appeared to gain political points from Ennahda’s failures, painting a heroic picture of his special presidential guards swooping in to take control of the situation after government forces bungled security measures during the US Embassy attack. Ultimately, Ennahda’s hands-off approach to dealing with these incidents has made the party unpopular with both secularists and Salafis, who frequently echo one another’s criticisms of Ennahda—excoriating it as an unprincipled and overly pragmatic party out for nothing but political gain.
Pandering to the right may seem a shrewd election strategy for Ennahda now, particularly since Essebsi’s party is gaining ground. By pacifying and pandering to the right, however, the party may be playing to a pipe dream—desperately trying to shore up popularity and religious credentials with a group of Salafis who already view the movement as impious, unprincipled, and American-influenced. Many young jihadi-Salafis already resent the paternalistic attitude, accusing the party of talking down to them. Ennahda may be better advised to stake its claim on center-right territory and redouble its efforts to improve the economy and apply the rule of law equally to prosecute all those guilty of criminal acts. Such a path could redynamize the party as a representative, principled force against impunity in Tunisian politics and strengthen the critically important issues of transparency and rule of law.
Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. She is currently conducting field research in Tunisia.
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