On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements. 

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition. 

Though it is difficult to gauge their popular support, Salafi organizations have certainly become more vocal. Many, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (Ettahrir), began mobilizing in early January while the demonstrations against the Ben Ali regime were still going on. Others did not rally until their leaders were released from prison in the March 2011 prisoner amnesty. And while Salafi groups did not contest the Constituent Assembly elections this past October, they did attempt a show of strength outside of the ballot box a few weeks prior in demonstrations against the Nessma TV broadcast of the 2007 French-American film Persepolis which included depictions of God in human form—considered blasphemy by many religious Sunni Muslims. Tunisia’s government is also concerned with the rise in militant discourse and activity, expressed most prominently in clashes in Sfax in February with an armed group seeking to establish an “Islamic emirate.” 

Ennahda’s leadership has remained sanguine thus far and chosen to condemn the actions of “rogue elements” within Salafi groups rather than the groups’ ideology on whole—while also publicly expressing its willingness to dialogue with Salafi groups that use legal, non-violent methods. This policy appears based on both its history in the opposition and the practical considerations of governing an ideologically polarized country. Many of Ennahda’s top leaders, including Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh, spent much of their lives in Tunisian jails; the movement does not want to repeat the mistakes of the former regime by cracking down harshly.

Ennahda has supported Salafi groups’ legalization. While Ettahrir has not yet been formally authorized as a political party, it was allowed to hold an international conference last March outside of Tunis. Ennahda has even endeavored to dialogue with Salafi strains sympathetic to an al-Qaeda worldview—though most in the Tunisian context like Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), seem satisfied with da‘wa (missionary work). 

In addition to such outreach, however, Ennahda has also taken action to curb the influence of Salafis in public discourse. In an attempt to present himself as the true steward of Tunisian conservatism and connect with Salafi-sympathetic voters, Ghannouchi announced that he himself was a Salafi, insofar as the term referred to a Muslim that believed one should return to Islam as founded on the Quran and the Sunna. More importantly, key institutions are taking a lead role in molding public religious discourse. For example, in response to reports that as many as 400 mosques across the country have been “taken over” by radical preachers, Minister of Religious Affairs Nourredine Khadmi has spoken out on the need for imams to be approved by the ministry before their installation at the local level. The decision to reopen Tunisia’s oldest and most revered religious school, Zeituna University (closed by Bourguiba), can also be interpreted in this context. 

Taken together, these recent actions demonstrate that Ennahda recognizes the dangers implicit in allowing Salafi groups to operate with full freedom, but avoids the risky crackdowns that might result in deeper or more widespread radicalization. Already heavily criticized for a perceived inaction on the economy, Ennahda is keen to avoid ideological confrontations.

However, this position opens the door for secular groups to criticize the government—groups that receive considerable support from a society still very much fearful of extremists and that fears increasing conservatism, especially regarding women’s rights. From their perspective, the ruling party’s actions are evidence of a double discourse—conservative in private and moderate in public—rather than a practical one. While secular parties appear poised to capitalize on what they call Ennahda’s mismanagement of a serious threat to modern Tunisia, they remain fractured. Liberal parties have split apart and reformed into coalitions, only to disintegrate once more—allowing for the rise of so-called “Destourian” parties composed of segments of the Ben Ali and Bourguiba eras. Led by transitional Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, these groups have garnered support by calling for a new era of national unity based on security and modernism. A lack of organization (for the liberals) and doubts about their intentions to clean up government (among the Destourians) have limited the popularity of both groups, neither of which seem capable of challenging Ennahda at this time. However, the media, still largely a secular bastion, will continue to pressure the government to act against extremism.

But if the recent public protests by Salafis are any indication, Ennahda isn’t quite comfortable taking sides just yet. Rather, its approach has been to demonstrate its moderation by criticizing both sides. Following the attack on the theater troupe in Tunis, the government closed Bourguiba Avenue to all protests—later causing even more bad publicity after it violently cracked down on secular protests the following week. The recent sentencing of two atheists to seven years in prison for posting anti-Islamic material on their Facebook pages—a decision widely supported by the conservative wing within Ennahda and among Salafi groups—was met with the “hands-off” statement that the government could not interfere in the judicial process. Ennahda’s critics are quick to see in this officially neutral position a hidden complicity with the judgment itself.  

There are some issues on which Ennahda must take a stand, however. On March 26, the party’s decision to exclude a provision for sharia as “the sole source of legislation” in its draft constitution provoked outrage among hardline conservatives—Salafis denounced Rached Ghannouchi as a traitor when he stated that the original first clause in the constitution was sufficient for a Muslim country: “Tunisia is a free, independent, and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic, and its type of government is the Republic.” Ghannouchi also observed that over 90 percent of Tunisian law derives from sharia already without constitutional provisions. Though debate officially ended with the announcement, the party was deeply divided during the course of discussion. 

The controversy over sharia is but one area where large numbers of Ennahda’s members have dissented from the party’s official line. As the party gears up toward next year’s elections, these internal debates may intensify, particularly as Ennahda meets over the summer to decide its official platform. The next few months will be critical for Ghannouchi to gauge whether the moderate stance of the group’s leaders will continue to hold sway over its rank and file—particularly as those in the Constituent Assembly look more and more at their re-election prospects. 

Aaron Y. Zelin is a research associate in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University. He maintains the website Jihadology.net and co-edits the blog al-Wasat. Erik Churchill is an analyst and development consultant based in Tunisia. He blogs about Tunisian politics at Kefteji.