What's after the election of the first Islamist woman mayor in Tunis

Secularists described the campaign as a ploy by the Islamist Ennahda party to soften its image ahead of 2019 elections
Monday 16/07/2018
Souad Abderrahim, 54, right, campaigns with Rached Ghannouchi, head of Islamist party Ennahdha, in Tunis, on April 14. (AP)
Souad Abderrahim, 54, right, campaigns with Rached Ghannouchi, head of Islamist party Ennahdha, in Tunis, on April 14. (AP)

Souad Abderrahim’s election as the first woman mayor of Tunis on July 3 has not been short on controversy. And there is nothing surprising about that.

Very often, there are bound to be divergent views in Tunisia when it comes to the political role of women or that of Islamists. Souad Abderrahim is both a woman and an Islamist.

Despite running as an "independent," Abderrahim, 53, has been a fixture in Ennahda’s political scene, especially since the Islamist party started actively rebranding itself as a “Muslim democratic” party.

Secularists and other anti-Islamist opponents described her role as a ploy by Ennahda to soften its image and expand its influence, especially among crucial female electorate ahead of 2019 presidential and legislative elections.  But secularists have yet to offer a credible strategy to counter the Islamists' inroads.

After assuming the position of mayor, Abderrahim has shown an awareness of the power of pictures and social media. But she provoked the anger of secularists by donning a blue headscarf (symbolising both her adherence to the Islamist dress code and to the colours of Ennahda). The next day she was pictured without a headscarf helping municipal workers water-scrub the sidewalks of Tunis.

Both the new mayor and Ennahda know that she has the potential to be a party icon. Her ideological enemies know that very well but see her also becoming their favourite dartboard on the way to 2019.

“If the election of Abderrahim as mayor of Tunis is without doubt a landmark event, let’s not delude ourselves,” said writer Synda Tajine.

“Abderrahim will be the spokeswoman of Ennahda and its message bearer and serves its aims and interests.”

“Ennahda has taken its time to study its enemies, know their weaknesses and manipulate their desires and ambitions. In the opposite camps, no one has yet been able to foil Ennahda’s plans and designs,” she added.

Islamists may be keen on promoting a gender-friendly image but there can be no doubt that Ennahdha still defends a conservative value system at odds with the liberal feminist agenda.

To celebrate Abderrahim’s victory, male members of Ennahda's leadership gathered around Rached Ghannouchi at party headquarters. Female officials assembled on the  floor below.

The grassroots of Ennahda and its leadership belong to the same socio-political culture, a predictably conservative culture. For Ennahda, social conservatism is also politically expedient. Islamists know that the modernist narrative is still struggling in many segments of public opinion and not just in the traditional and rural parts of the country.

Social conservatism, in fact, cuts across ideological lines, age groups and even gender categories. That's why the role of Abderrahim as a female political face will be under continued scrutiny in a society that remains not just deeply conservative but too often hostile and unfair to women. So don't expect Ennahda, anytime soon, to lead the progressive battle for full gender equality. That does necessarily expand its constituencies.

But by throwing a female icon into the limelight,  Ennahda has underscored its growing ambitions. Ennahda now holds sway in a number of major cities, including Sfax, the country’s second wealthiest city, Gabes and Kairouan, the spiritual capital of Tunisia.

Much of Ennahda’s success has come as rival political parties, including the leading Nidaa Tounes party, have been mired in political infighting.

In response to Abderrahim’s victory, Nidaa spokesman Mongi Harbaoui admitted: “Ennahda has a well-oiled machine with more experience than other parties."

Nidaa Tounes, a loose grouping of nationalist, secular-minded Bourguibists, liberals, leftists and Ben-Ali era oldhands, was formed in 2012 by President Beji Caid Essebsi with the explicit goal of building a “fire-wall” to contain Ennahda’s Islamist agenda. 

The results of Tunisia’s municipal elections in May were cause for concern for Nidaa Tounes, which took only 20.8% of the vote, less than Ennahda’s 28.6%.  

In addition, Nidaa Tounes is battling a deep internal crisis over the future of its head of government, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Ennahda’s recent success in bringing one of its women leaders to the helm of Tunis politics has fuelled concern among secularists and likeminded activists that the Islamist party could be laying the ground for further gains in presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

While peaceful coexistence between secularists and Islamists in parliament and government helped Tunisia manage its democratic transition without conflict, it has also postponed the debate over key social and economic issues.  

Such issues could emerge from beneath the surface in next year's election campaign, stirring a lot of turbulence in its wake.

Emboldened by its gains, Ennahda is mulling its next move. It has floated the possibility of having Ghannouchi run for president next year. That would be a break with the party’s cautious strategy of staying away from the top position of government.

What could discourage such a move is not just the organised opposition it will face from other parties but also Ennahda's own wariness of the likely spontaneous reaction of a wide margin of voters, who as in the 2014 elections, could ultimately refuse Islamist control of the reins of power. Ennahda knows its worst enemy is overreach.