Within a few hours of the polls closing in Tunisia’s elections last Sunday night, it was clear to the Islamist Ennahda movement that their hope of a second victory at the ballot box was far too optimistic. In one branch office in central Sousse, the party’s election observers, looking increasingly disappointed, complained about some “violations” but admitted that supporters of their rival Nidaa Tounes were outvoting their own, in some polling centers by nearly three to one. They blamed a hostile media, which they saw as relentlessly critical of the Islamist movement over the past three years since the 2011 uprising. Others blamed the deep state, which they said was still loyal to the former regime and which had obstructed Ennahda’s efforts while in government. 

Some of these explanations for Ennahda’s defeat in the polls may be true, but the main reason for their defeat rests in the movement’s failure to address the deep socio-economic challenges Tunisia still faces three years after the fall of Ben Ali. The movement’s bold promises in its 2011 election campaign of economic growth and job creation did not materialize. Unemployment has dipped slightly but still remains at 15.2 percent, and is higher in the interior and among graduates. The extent of popular discontent was already clear in mid-2013, and eventually opposition parties forced Ennahda into a negotiated departure from government. As one member of Ennahda’s Shura Council put it before Sunday’s elections: “We didn’t have clarity in the period of the government. We focused on constitution and didn’t think much about issues of development. In these [poor interior] regions they say: ‘Ben Ali deprived us, and then came Ennahda and they deprived us too.’”1

In the months before the vote, Ennahda had carried out its own internal polling, which showed what was obvious to many: the key issues for this election were not about Islamism versus secularism, but instead the parlous state of the economy and a perceived lack of security. Ennahda sought to address these challenges through a careful selection of new candidates for the legislative assembly, easing out the more hardline figures, like Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chourou, who wanted to focus on preaching over politics anyway, and proposing new, younger faces who seemed to offer a moderate vision and technical expertise as lawyers, engineers, doctors, and students. When out campaigning on the doorstep, Ennahda activists made little mention of religion, and instead told voters they had a choice between backing the forces of the revolution (including, in their view, Ennahda), or returning to the politics of the old regime, which they see epitomized in their rival Nidaa Tounes.

In the end this approach failed. Ennahda was quick to accept defeat and to congratulate Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, whose party won 85 seats in the 217-seat assembly, compared to Ennahda’s 69 seats. Nidaa Tounes succeeded in convincing Tunisians that it represented the only significant challenge to the Islamists and offered promises of stability and foreign investment.

Ennahda still hopes it might become part of a national unity government for the next five-year parliamentary term, although it seems more likely at present that Nidaa Tounes will invite into its coalition some of the smaller parties who share more similar political programs. That will put Ennahda into opposition, which may actually benefit it by distancing the party from the many austere reforms required for the economy, which the World Bank says remains as structurally stagnant and paralyzed as it was under the old regime. Ennahda chose not to put forward a candidate for next month’s presidential elections, because it expected to win the legislative vote and feared it would be counter-productive to dominate all key political offices. The movement’s Shura Council is still debating who it should endorse for the presidential election. Current President Moncef Marzouki may remain the movement’s favored consensus candidate though his party, the Congress for the Republic, won only four seats. But at this stage it is most likely that Beji Caid Essebsi will win, meaning his party will dominate both the presidency and the new parliament.

Yet despite these electoral setbacks and the concessions Ennahda has made over the past three years—notably by not insisting on mention of the application of Sharia law in the constitution, opposing an effort to exclude former regime figures from political life, and agreeing to step down from government in January—its base has so far remained loyal. In Sunday’s elections Ennahda won just over 30 percent of the vote, which may well represent the base of its support in society: it is a large political movement but by no means dominant. But there have been internal rifts, for example, in April this year when 39 members of Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc defied the movement’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and voted in favor of excluding former regime figures from political life, although the article narrowly failed to pass. 

Often Ennahda’s members have been dissatisfied at the diluting of its religious program, but splinter parties have failed to gain traction. There was also significant initial opposition to Ghannouchi’s acceptance of the national dialogue process by which Ennahda left power this year, but Ghannouchi’s leadership remains intact. If Ennahda had won the elections and formed a coalition government with Nidaa Tounes, as promised, that would have put yet more strain on the movement’s internal structure. However, an extended period in opposition and away from the inevitable compromises of government will allow space for the movement to reorganize and focus on enlarging its base. 

Next year Ennahda will hold a special congress to make key decisions about its future. The organization is likely to split into a religious movement, which will focus on preaching, and a political party, which will focus exclusively on political work. The decision has been discussed internally for the past three years but was postponed at the last congress in 2012 after long, inconclusive debates. There is still a concern within the movement that a split will weaken the political wing, or that more conservative loyalists may react against what they see as Ennahda renouncing the work of the past 30 years, when the movement always insisted its comprehensive project embraced both private and public life. However, there is a growing divergence within Ennahda between those activists who focus on preaching and shun politics, and those who believe the movement’s best interests are served by playing a role in forging the new democratic institutions of state. The election defeat will likely sharpen these internal differences and accelerate the division into religious movement and political party.

Rory McCarthy is researching a DPhil at St Antony’s College, Oxford, about Islamist activism in contemporary Tunisia. He is a former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian.

1. Interview with the author. ?