Mapping Democracy

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Islamic Ennahda Movement
    How Democratic Is the New Political Dawn in Tunisia?

    The success of the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia has aroused considerable anxiety about Islamisation of the country, but its election programme provided no reason for such fears.

    A year or so after the start of the ‘Arab Spring’, tremendous disillusionment or even disappointment have spread among the media in Germany and other Western countries. After a euphoric welcome for the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, prolonged and deadly struggles in Yemen and Syria have dampened expectations that other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world would quickly succumb to mass pressure. Then last autumn, after democratic elections in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt demonstrated the political domination of Islamist parties, more and more people started viewing the initial hopes of rapid democratic change as being premature, or even spoke of the revolutions having been ‘stolen’. It seems as if, in the view of many observers and commentators, Islamist electoral successes are merely to be evaluated as a retrograde step or as a danger for post-revolutionary strivings for freedom and democracy.

    Uncertainty about the Islamist movement’s electoral victory and distrust of the government it now heads are particularly evident in Tunisia. After President Bourguiba’s policy of secularist modernisation (until 1987) gained the country the image of being a progressive ‘exception’ in the Arab world, from the early Nineties onwards propaganda by Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime portrayed Tunisia as a model of how to successfully combat religious ‘obscurantism’ and ‘extremism’. Both the Western public and Tunisia’s secular and leftist opposition were thus only mildly critical of the regime’s merciless suppression of the Islamist movement, and even supported this as an expression of the state’s modernist orientation.

    However, after the overthrow of Ben Ali’s regime by the revolutionary mass movement of January 2011, a completely new historical era began for the country’s most important Islamist movement, Harakat Ennahda. For the first time ever since its foundation in the early 1970s, Ennahda could legally develop organisational structures and become socially active without any interference by state bureaucrats. On March 1st 2011 it received official permission to form a political party, almost thirty years after the unsuccessful attempt in June 1981 to establish an ‘Islamic Movement’. Nevertheless, last year, when the first Ennahda exiles, including chairman Rashid al-Ghannushi, had just returned to Tunisia, no one in the movement anticipated that within twelve months its secretary-general, Hamadi al-Jabali, would be heading a coalition government based on the outcome of democratic elections.

    The Islamists’ new role

    In the elections for a constituent assembly (October 23rd 2011), Ennahda gained 89 out of 210 seats (around 41%), far outstripping the other political groupings. During the envisaged transitional period of one year, when the constituent assembly is charged with drawing up a new constitution and functioning as the legislature, the Islamist movement has been able to achieve an importance that hardly anyone had reckoned with – obviously not even within Ennahda itself. Also, in mid-December Tunisia’s transitional President, Munsif al-Marzuqi, charged secretary-general al-Jabali with forming a government. In the coalition government established soon after that (with two other former opposition parties alongside Ennahda) the Islamists provided the Foreign, Interior and Justice Ministers, as well as filling other posts.

    The question – much discussed during the pre-electoral period – of whether the Islamist movement would play a decisive part in the post-revolutionary Tunisian political landscape thus received a surprising and clear-cut answer. It is in fact truly surprising that, after twenty years of absence from the country’s political life and unprecedented state persecution of its members, Ennahdawas capable within just a few months of both redeveloping its organisational structures and mobilising such a wide range of voters – including young people who could hardly have known the movement from their own previous experience. Remarkable too is the reintegration, obviously without any major problems, of hundreds of members after years of exile, mainly in Europe.

    On the other hand the movement’s basic policies after the revolution are scarcely surprising – at least not for those who have followed Ennahda’s ideological development in recent decades, with its orientation towards radical change through rapid creation of democratic (and above all democratically legitimated) institutions, and its striving for consensus with other political forces in the country, including – indeed, especially – secular and leftist parties. Taking into account what the movement declared as early as 1996 in a programme setting out objectives for the period following Ben Ali’s dictatorship, the present coalition government really does seem to be an implementation of that concept of a joint ‘front’ of the most important opposition forces against the regime which fell in January last year. Furthermore, in 1981 the movement had first attempted to embrace the pluralistic political order then coming into existence, and in 2011 it similarly refrained from urging the idea of establishment of an ‘Islamic state’ or calling for ‘application of sharia’.

    Progressive election programme

    Ennahdasupports the principle of a democratic ‘civic’ state and rejects a ‘religious’ state in the form of a theocracy. It thus adopts the same position as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Morocco’s Justice and Development Party. In its programme published a few weeks before the September 2011 elections, the movement summarised its political objectives as entailing freedom, democracy, and ‘Power to the People’. It is therefore striving for a republican system which implements justice, freedom, and stability, and rejects despotism and corruption. Here the movement expressly proclaims support for the involvement of all political forces in drawing up a new constitution as ‘the culmination of the Tunisian revolution’. The details of this programme for a new political order in Tunisia make clear Ennahda’s commitment to a broad-based social system. Freedom, justice, and development are stated to be the central values of state and society. Human rights and individual and collective freedoms are to be guaranteed – especially freedom of belief and thought and the rights of religious minorities. Torture is to be banned. In addition, Ennahdaproclaims its support of independence for civic society, the principle of pluralism and peaceful transfers of power, separation of powers, and an independent legal system. The functions of legislation and control are to be exerted by a parliament consisting of a single chamber, which is also responsible for possible changes in the constitution and election of the president of the republic. The latter’s five-year term of office can be extended only once.

    In the preamble to this programme, the republican system is described as the ‘best guarantee for democracy and utilisation of the country’s wealth for the people’s well-being’. Respecting human rights is also mentioned here, explicitly by opposing ‘discrimination for reasons of gender, skin colour, ideology, or wealth while strengthening equal rights for women in education, employment, and participation in public life’. Proposals for a ‘democratic political system’ establish a direct connection with the post-colonial regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. At issue here is ‘eradication of the historically-established roots of autocracy which allowed the independent state to deviate from its (true) mission’.

    A careful reading of Ennahda’selection programme shows that the experience of decades of autocratic rule and its dictatorial expression in politics, the economy and culture clearly underlies the emphasis on the establishment of a constitutional and civic state in which citizens should be protected – by both strong institutions and an active civic society – against arbitrary state action. The principles of ‘good governance’ are several times linked with ‘human dignity’ and the demands of comprehensive economic and social development. The programme’s sections on economic and social policy are also more detailed than those devoted to the political system, thereby emphasising commitment to making a clear-cut break with the practices of the former regime.

    Leaving aside the question of the extent to which the election programme’s guidelines really do constitute realistic starting-points for solving Tunisia’s economic and social problems in the period ahead, this text (just like many declarations by Ennahda’sleaders before and after the elections) offers no reason for doubting the movement’s seriousness regarding orientation towards real democratic change or for distrusting a government under its leadership. Also, in its political dealings since the successful revolution Ennahda has at no time deviated from the principle of establishing consensus with other political and ideological forces about the essential steps and processes leading to democracy.

    Distrust and misrepresentations

    Nevertheless, a number of Tunisian politicians repeatedly fuel doubts about the credibility of Ennahda’s ‘democratic discourse’, and misrepresent the movement as demonstrating provisional pragmatism in order to retain power or even as explicitly resorting to deceitfulness. It is claimed that the party’s real objective consists of using its new position of power within the state to implement the long-term Islamisation of Tunisian society, thereby reversing the achievements of ‘modernity’, particularly women’s rights and freedom of opinion and belief. Maintaining that Islamists only employ democratic rhetoric and processes in order to take over state power and then establish their own anti-modern religious dictatorship is a long-established tactic in Tunisia. Secularising intellectuals frequently make reference to historical experiences in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan.

    Nonetheless, current fears on the part of intellectuals, activists for women’s rights, and left-wing parties (the losers in the elections) are not only shaped by decades of state rhetoric in the struggle against ‘religious extremism’. In recent months they have been nourished by a series of public declarations and actions by religious groupings which utilise the country’s new freedom to draw attention to themselves and, above all, to mobilise youth. This mainly involves Salafist groups and the ‘Islamic Liberation Party’, who loudly call for ‘application of sharia’ and re-establishment of an ‘Islamic caliphate’. Often in these sometimes shrill disputes (among the public and in the media) between ‘secularists’ and ‘Islamists’ people – perhaps deliberately, perhaps unconsciously – overlook the fact that there are considerable differences and sometimes obvious oppositions between these relatively new factions and the Ennahdamovement with regard to political, ideological, and also religious ways of thinking.

    A relatively impartial view of the movement’s development since its beginnings at the start of the 1960s does not provide grounds for evaluating Ennahda’scurrent positions as expressions of provisional pragmatism, let alone political hypocrisy. On the contrary, they appear to be the result of political experiences gained and processed during decades of authoritarian rule in Tunisia – and also the outcome of debates and conflicts between different tendencies within the movement, reflecting self-critical assessments of the movement’s own ideology and praxis, especially in the 1990s. A part was played as well by ongoing interaction between and co-operation with other (leftist, liberal, nationalist) forces in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

    More adaptable Islam?

    The development of new ideological and political viewpoints becomes particularly apparent in Ennahda’schairman, Rashid al-Ghannushi. Born in 1941, he studied philosophy and then, after twenty years of exile in Great Britain, returned to Tunisia at the end of January 2011. He has devoted intensive attention to the processing of his movement’s historical experiences in Tunisian society, and his theoretical and theological reflection has crucially shaped Ennahda’sself-image today, with its guiding impulse of symbiosis between ‘Islam and modernity’ making the movement closer to the Turkish AKP than to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1980s al-Ghannushi was subjected to intense internal criticism, mainly because of his tactical leadership, but during his London exile in the Nineties he gained the reputation of being one of the Islamist mainstream’s most influential reformist intellectuals in the Arab world and beyond. In many publications and interviews he has confronted contemporary Islamist ideology, programmes and praxis. Time and again his ideas have been concerned with the relationship between traditions of Islamic thought and modern concepts of democracy, freedom, and human rights. Again and again he has expressly advocated acceptance of democratic and pluralistic principles rather than restrictive conservative positions and hesitant attitudes, and argued in favour of a new approach to human and civic rights in Islamic theology within the context of the relationship between religion and the modern state.

    In the fundamental orientation demonstrated in its election programme, and in many public statements since the revolution, the movement’s positions clearly accord with recent theoretical reflections by Rashid al-Ghannushi and other Ennahda intellectuals. These include the central idea that the state has no right to prescribe to citizens specific religious convictions and norms laid down by law. In the election programme there was no mention of sharia. Up to now the Ennahdaleadership has also urged that the old constitution’s formulation that ‘Tunisia is a free and independent state with Islam as its religion and Arabic its language’ should remain unchanged in the new constitution. ‘Islam’ is understood here as a general historical and cultural frame of reference whose ideas about values should be harmonised with present-day requirements and those of ‘human experience’. Nevertheless, present discussion of the new constitution includes consideration of reference to ‘sharia law’ as a source or even the main source of legislation. That is partly in reaction to demands put forward by more conservative and Salafist groupings, and also by some prominent representatives of Ennahda. However this does not mean – despite the fears and accusations expressed by some of Tunisia’s secularists – that the movement is now preparing authoritarian ‘Islamisation from above’. As Ennahdasees the situation, sharia law is inconceivable without its ethical principles (maqasid ash-sharia),headed by freedom. Discussions about the constitution are thus not only concerned with finding a basic democratic consensus for future political attitudes in Tunisia. Attention is also being paid to democratic understanding of an appropriately contemporary interpretation of Islamic concepts and values. Ennahdaseems well prepared for that, both theoretically and programmatically, in terms of a ‘symbiosis of Islam and modernity’. The months ahead will show how much of this can be implemented in today’s Tunisia.
    Lutz Rogler
    is a scholar of Arabic and of Islam.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2012

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to

    Related links

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Fikrun wa Fann as an E-Paper

    Read Fikrun issue 97 “Mapping Democracy” on your smart phone, BlackBerry or e-reader!
    Go to download...

    Order now

    Application form

    Institutions or people in Islamic countries who are employed in the journalism or culture sectors have the option to obtain a free subscription.
    To the application form ... – Dialogue with the Islamic World

    Politics, culture, social affairs: Information and discussions in German, Arabic and English

    Zenith Online

    Covering the Muslim world with a critical, resourceful, and balanced view