The absence of any visible Islamist dimension to recent events in Tunisia has been the source of much discussion and, in not a few cases, evident satisfaction. But the marginality of Islamism in the formative stages of the Tunisian revolution-in-progress, though important and striking in itself, does not at once discount political Islam’s long history in the country, or consign it to permanent irrelevance. Rather, it seems likely that Tunisian Islamism, in one form or another, will have a part to play in the post-Ben Ali era.
In the immediate aftermath of the flight of Ben Ali, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the exiled founder of Hizb an-Nahda (Renaissance Party), announced his intention to return home. In an interview with the Financial Times in London, Ghannouchi expanded:
I decided to return because the cause for which I left Tunisia has now disappeared… Now Ben Ali has gone, the natural state is for me to be inside the country, to be involved… I wish to be involved in contributing alongside others to the dismantling of the dictatorship and to help in the process of taking Tunisia from the dictatorial system to a democratic one.
Initially, the inclusion of any Islamist element in Tunisia’s new order seemed likely to be a ‘red line’ for the remnants of the old regime still prominent in the interim government. On Wednesday, Dr George Joffé, editor of the Journal of North African Studies, told an audience at Oxford University’s Middle East Centre that interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi had privately contacted senior members of an-Nahda to inform them that they would be excluded from the emergent political process. Yet his ability to enforce this bold edict appears to have rapidly unravelled.
Individuals affiliated with the ancien regime still hold important cards – not least the Foreign, Interior and Defence ministries. On Tuesday, a large demonstration in central Tunis led by senior an-Nahda figure Sadok Chourou was violently dispersed by security forces. In the following days, however, the interim government had to weather four resignations from opposition ministers as well as renewed protest across the country. Just today, in a landmark decision, the government announcedthat it would recognize proscribed political groups – apparently including Islamists.
If there was ever a consensus within the fledgling unity government on the merits of excluding Islamist participation, it was already fraying by Wednesday night, when the following exchange took place between Najib Chebbi, Development Minister in the government and an opposition figure under Ben Ali, and the BBC’s Stephen Sackur:
SS: Will you also invite the Islamist party an-Nahda to fight in those [promised] elections and will you tell Mr Rachid Ghannouchi and other exiles from that party that they are now welcome to come and play a political role inside your country, right away?
NC: You know, my personal position since a long time, is that to have democracy we must integrate any people who want to respect the law and play the game of democracy. I think that political Islam – moderate political Islam – is a component of the Arab and Islamic landscape. Look to Morocco – they integrated moderate political Islam and they get stability. I think, this is my personal point of view, that moderate political Islam has a place in the new Tunisia. But, I have not…
SS: I want to know whether you think an-Nahda will be… what does the Prime Minister say to you?
NC: The Prime Minister, Mr [Mohammed] Ghannouchi, met with Mr Jibali, who is number two after Mr [Rachid] Ghannouchi of Nahda, and he spoke with him for one hour, and we will decide tomorrow in the Cabinet, a project of law about general amnesty. These are two acts that give a clear message for persons who want to work in the legal frame, peacefully, and who will respect the basis of democracy – which is human rights, the freedom of belief, the freedom of speech – can have their place.
Although Chebbi mentioned resistance to Islamist involvement from Leftist elements within the Cabinet – opposition seconded by some leaders in Tunisia’s powerful trade union networks – such reservations were seemingly overwhelmed today.
Chebbi’s endorsement of the Moroccan ‘model’ – a reference to the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), an Islamist group that has participated in the Moroccan parliament since 1997 – offers clues to the possible nature of any Tunisian ‘accommodation’ with Islamism. In Morocco, the PJD is allowed to contest elections and participate in parliament in accordance with certain unwritten conditions: principally that it endorse constitutional practices and accept the legitimacy of the Monarchy, where real political power is in any case concentrated. Despite this domesticated arrangement, the PJD is still the subject of much suspicion. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it intentionally limits its contestation of elections, restricting its candidate numbers and tempering its political critique.
For its part, an-Nahda would likely be amenable to even this kind of guarded compromise. The movement was arguably the first major Islamist party to embrace democracy as a mechanism for empowerment compatible with the concept ofshura. An-Nahda has also recently made reassuring noises, confirming its commitment to pluralism, freedom of conscience and Tunisia’s progressive Personal Status Code, which enshrines women’s rights. Nor does the party seem to harbour aspirations of sweeping to power. Ghannouchi told the Financial Times:
I have no political aspirations myself, neither for standing as a minister, for parliament, or president. Some are presenting me as a Khomeini who will return to Tunisia – I am no Khomeini… My age does not allow me to consider such aspirations. I am nearing 70 years old and there are new generations inside Nahda more able, more suited to political activism.
Aware of an-Nahda’s need to regenerate itself after decades of exile and repression, Ghannouchi envisages a long-term programme of re-entry:
There are new generations now who have not had the opportunity to be familiar with Nahda and nor does Nahda know them. We have not had the opportunity to address or influence them. [But] We expect many still remember us… We’ll go back to organising ourselves and contribute to the education of a new generation through our moderate, democratic thought.
As Ghannouchi admits, there is no way to tell if an-Nahda can regain relevance and mobilize latent constituencies after so long an absence. At the same time, exile brings certain advantages: Ghannouchi is completely untainted by the old ways, and indeed he has staked his career in opposition to it. His criticism of ‘old guard’ elements in the interim government places him in line with significant sections of public opinion, which continues to register its scepticism in street protests, while rival opposition parties already within the Cabinet risk a loss of legitimacy. Moreover, his party offers moral direction in a heady, but somewhat rudderless, political opening.
In any case, even a modest integration of political Islam into the new Tunisian order would represent a remarkable and, in time, potentially momentous development. In the ashes of a secular ‘security state’ such as Ben Ali’s, it would indeed be revolutionary.