Trump’s move against Brotherhood could put damper on Islamists’ ambitions in Tunisia

Ennahda’s Islamists were so engrossed by the exercise of power and influence that they failed to hedge against a change in the international and regional environments.
Sunday 05/05/2019
A file photo shows supporters of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha Party wave the national flag and the party flag during the opening of Ennahdha in Tunis. (AFP)
A file photo shows supporters of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha Party wave the national flag and the party flag during the opening of Ennahdha in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - US President Donald Trump’s push to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organisation is likely to upset the cautious strategy followed by Tunisia’s Islamists to build political clout ahead of elections this year.

Tunisia’s main Islamist party, the Ennahda Movement, will have to reckon with rising suspicions about its alliances and connections at home and abroad.

Its leadership is insisting that Trump’s initiative has no bearing on their status. “We are not concerned by the labelling of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. We do not interfere in the affairs of other countries and wish that all Arab countries unite,” Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi said.

Even before Trump’s move, there were European secularist worries about the significance of Ennahda’s possible control of Tunisia’s societal fabric and its democratic transition.

Ennahda, which has participated in eight Tunisian governments since 2011, has been struggling for years to separate its identity from the Muslim Brotherhood’s. Perhaps pre-emptively, it has sought for years to rebrand itself as a Tunisia version of Muslim democracy and engaged in PR efforts to that end abroad.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi ended his power-sharing arrangement with Ennahda last September after a 4-year alliance, saying the Islamists failed to make good on promises to move away from their fundamentalist roots.

There is also an investigation into Ennahda’s activities following accusations by lawyers and leftist activists that Ennahda ran a “secret organisation” to infiltrate the military and other state institutions.

Ennahda’s leaders dismissed the allegations as a “smear campaign” to hurt its chances in November’s elections.

“We have quit political Islam to enter Muslim democracy,” Ghannouchi proclaimed in 2016 at a party convention dedicated to separating political activity from “da’wa” — religious preaching.

However, few believed that “Muslim democracy” was within Ennahda’s reach.

Lotfi Zitoun, a top Ghannouchi adviser, recently snapped: “We must free Islam as the religion for all Tunisians and work and act as a political party involved in politics.”

Sceptics cite historical and sociological connections between Ennahda and radical Salafists.

“Ennahda is suffering the most from terrorism and the allegations by some that the Salafists are the pool of reservists for it had been proven untrue,” said Ghannouchi.

Analysts said Trump’s move, even if it were not put into effect before this year’s Tunisian elections, would put Ennahda’s civic and democratic commitments under scrutiny.

“I do not believe that Trump’s move will have a direct effect on Ennahda but it will make the party more subject to political and ideological attacks by its adversaries,” said Slah Jourchi, an expert on Islamism.

“Ennahda insists it is a Tunisian party with no link to the Muslim Brotherhood but the campaign against it by its adversaries keep suspicions alive.”

Ennahda’s leaders recognise that the party has its origins in Muslim Brotherhood Central but insist they broke away from the organisation in the 1980s and are now a Tunisian Islamist movement.

To appeal to their traditional constituencies, however, Ennahda’s leaders occasionally relapse into conservative narratives such as opposition to equal inheritance between men and women.

Analysts said Ennahda’s Islamists were so engrossed by the exercise of power and influence that they failed to hedge against a change in the international and regional environments that had helped them advance on the local political scene during the past eight years.

“Those who had fostered political Islam and gave it a role in the Arab region are moving now to put an end to that role,” said Tunisian political analyst Bassel Torjmane, in reference to the favourable environment that legitimised the Islamists as a political force since the 2011 uprisings.

“The role handed to the Islamists in the Arab region has ended and this explains the collapse of the Islamists in Sudan and Libya,” he added.

Torjmane warned Islamists in Tunisia that they “could find themselves in the eye of the storm” if they were to miss integrating the change in regional and international environments into their strategy.

“Tunisian Islamists must grasp the reality of the unfolding change and be part of a Tunisian political equation and not part of the Qatari-Turkish equation, which is against Tunisia’s interests,” Torjmane added.

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