August 20, 2017

Tunisia’s Islamists in Catch-22 over inheritance issue

In a bind. Tunisian islamist Ennahda deputies at the parliament in Tunis. (AFP)

Leaders of Tunisia’s Is­lamist Ennahda party have often outma­noeuvred their op­ponents and avoided becoming embroiled in the heated debate over women’s rights, which would put their conservative narrative at odds with that of modernity.
Most Ennahda supporters, who generally adhere to more conserv­ative interpretations of Islam, have traditionally been concentrated in the country’s rural areas and working-class urban belts around the main cities.
Trying to expand their support base to urban environments and elite constituencies, especially during the 2011 and 2014 elections, they made sure to pay lip service to women’s rights, working under the assumption that support for such rights was a prerequisite to main­stream support in the Tunisian political scene.
The tactic eventually led Ennah­da to voice support for Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, which, in 1957, abolished polygamy and required the mutual consent of spouses for marriage to be per­formed.
Ironically, challenging this legislation and the modernist culture underpinning it used to be a key element of the Islamist movement’s narrative. The argu­ment was key to the recruitment of successive generations of followers over the past decades. Recently, Ennahda leaders and lawmakers endorsed a new law to eliminate violence against women.
Though many Islamists and Muslim conservatives took to so­cial media to assail President Beji Caid Essebsi’s remarks in which he expressed support for equal inheritance and marriage rights for women, Ennahda’s leaders seemed to push back by diverting attention to other, less problematic social and economic issues.
Party leaders have been stress­ing to their membership that multiparty democracy has allowed them to be the main faction in parliament and a key partner in the government. They have argued that laws to ensure women’s rights and related initiatives they have backed are compatible with their views of Islam. This includes the constitutional provision ensur­ing freedom of conscience and religious freedom.
However, trying to alter the religiously enshrined statutes on the issue of inheritance will be an­other matter. Since the country’s independence, such a position has been rejected by Islamists and traditionalists.
If push comes to shove, Ennahda could find itself in a Catch-22 situ­ation: Either abandon its conserva­tive core or reject the modernist narrative.
Regardless of its leaders’ at­tempts to masterfully spin the issue, the party could be forced to pay a price one way or the other: It will have to accept equality between men and women in terms of inheritance and thus lose a big chunk of its supporters or oppose Caid Essebsi’s initiative and shed their veneer of a Muslim democ­racy.
The latter option would be particularly painful at a time when Ennahda leader Rached Ghan­nouchi has recently taken to wear­ing a tie to display his modernity.
“President Beji Caid Essebsi has pushed the Ennahda party into an­other battle it has not readied itself for. Ennahda had always planned its next battles well ahead,” wrote Hafedh Ghribi, the editor of Tuni­sia’s daily Essabah in an editorial.
“He (Caid Essebsi) returned En­nahda to square one of the civic state. The party had struggled very hard to avoid this kind of situation only to discover that the entente it had with secularists has probably come to an end.”
It is not clear whether Ennahda, at this sensitive juncture, can af­ford the steep price it might have to pay if it loses its alliance with Caid Essebsi-led secularists over the inheritance issue.

The party’s leaders seem to con­sider their entente with secularist formations a hedge against the opposition from various constitu­encies that are wary of Islamist encroachment. They are also cau­tious about the rest of the world sees it at a time when the global tide is turning against politi­cal Islam. This all-the-more true since the election of US President Donald Trump and the campaign waged by the Saudi Arabia-led Arab quartet against Qatar’s sup­port for the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam.