Why Islamists around the region are watching local elections in Tunisia

The Ennahda Movement, the standard bearer of Islamists in Tunisia, has shown a willingness to be pragmatic and make concessions.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Tunisians look at lists of candidates for the upcoming municipal elections in the city of Ariana, on April 14. (AFP)
The parity factor. Tunisians look at lists of candidates for the upcoming municipal elections in the city of Ariana, on April 14. (AFP)

Tunisia’s Islamists have changed their hues many times in the few years since their defeat in the 2014 elections and their unimpressive performance during their time in power.

Today, the Ennahda Movement, the standard bearer of Islamists in Tunisia, tops the list of the political parties most observant of the rule of gender parity in election lists for municipal elections in Tunisia. The party went a step further, dropping its tacit requirement of having only veiled female candidates on its lists. It is not uncommon to find unveiled female Ennahda candidates, clad in ripped jeans, running in districts usually dominated by secular parties.

The paradox takes on surreal dimensions as Nidaa Tounes, which leads the current government coalition in Tunisia and which has cultivated the image of being the legitimate guardian of women’s rights and inheritor of the modernist policies of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, has come last in the parity game.

Theoretically, at least, Nidaa Tounes shouldn’t have conceded this specific distinction to Ennahda because the political fallout in this aspect could be compounded.

Ennahda scored further points early in the match when it opened its lists to ethnic and religious diversity. In Monastir, a Jewish Tunisian citizen is running for elections on the Ennahda list. The significance of the move cannot be ignored. Monastir is Bourguiba’s birthplace and is considered the historical bastion of Bourguibist ideology. Ennahda scored against Nidaa Tounes right on the latter’s traditional turf.

These outward changes by Ennahda might not conform with its deep Islamist convictions but they at least show the Islamist party is willing to unreservedly go with the flow of the current stage in the democratic transition process and deal with the requirements of this stage with more pragmatism.

The party does not stand to lose a thing if it takes two steps forward then one step back. The important thing is to reach the goal of winning power and avoiding the disastrous fate of fellow Islamist movements in neighbouring countries.

There are many factors motivating Ennahda’s political decision to opt for change and for making concessions. The Islamist party began its metamorphosis by agreeing to separate the party’s proselytising mission from its political mission so as to be (even if it might be temporary or in appearance only) akin to other parties that state a belief in republican values and a civil state.

It would have been hard for Ennahda to ignore the repercussions of regional events that directly affected political Islam, such as the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the significant ebbing of the popular support for nascent Islamist movements racing for power (in Morocco and Libya, for example). Of course, one cannot also dismiss the nightmare of the failed coup in Turkey and the sanctions against Qatar, which is accused of backing Islamist extremist groups.

Islamist movements and their political and financial backers, willingly or unwittingly, must bear the fallout from the turmoil and tragedies of the region since the early days of the “Arab spring.” Tunisia’s Ennahda and similar Islamist organisations elsewhere have their share of political responsibility in the systematic destruction of the region.

Tunisia’s Islamists are walking a tightrope. Ennahda co-founder Rached Ghannouchi finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to reassure friends and foes at the same time. Above all, he and his party must remain part of the governing coalition. That provides the party with a political safety net should expected shocks occur.

In addition to reassuring local allies and rivals, the Islamist party must, by its performance, help boost the axis of like-minded organisations that consider Tunisia’s democratic experiment a yardstick with which one can evaluate the results of the “Arab spring” in other regions.

For those reasons, Ennahda in Tunisia is perceived as the standard bearer for Islamist organisations exercising power. Therefore, the biggest challenge facing it is to keep its feet solidly planted in power, whether by winning votes or by striking alliances and deals, even with its rivals.

In the Tunisian municipal elections, Ennahda must accomplish several things. First, it must win back public trust and regain the votes it lost in the 2014 elections. It must score a landslide victory in the elections and remain close and attentive to people’s needs and be ready for the general and presidential elections next year.

Since the ends justify the means, Ennahda’s seemingly exaggerated openness reflects a powerful desire to return to power. Its success in the democratic game in Tunisia offers similar political organisations in the region opportunities for returning to the political scene in new clothes.