The future of Ennahda will depend not on its ideology, but its organisational transformation, political choices, and the political system’s new arrangements.
President Kais Saied’s power grab at the expense of the Ennahda-led coalition in Tunisia and the Moroccan Justice and Development Party’s electoral defeat have led several analysts to question whether it signalled the end or the decline of political Islam in the Arab World. The recent wave of resignations from Ennahda made its survival even more difficult.
Ten years after their first election victory in October 2011, the political Islam movement in Tunisia is experiencing an existential challenge and the question remains as to what place is left for it in the country, if at all.
The answer to this question lies in understanding the changing meaning of political Islam in Tunisia and identifying the reasons behind Ennahda’s current crisis, which are political, not ideological. Hence, the future of political Islam in Tunisia will be determined by the evolving political situation as well as Ennahda’s ability to define a new triangle of relations between the party, the movement, and the electorate.
Founded as an Islamic group (jama’a) in the early seventies, the Ennahda Movement had to find ways to compete as a political party in the aftermath of the 2010 revolution. This dilemma was solved in the 2016 General Congress through the concept of “specialisation”, which meant a full-scale transformation of the movement into a political party with religious activism being left to independent civil society.
The movement’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has referred to this transformation as the end of political Islam and the beginning of Muslim democracy. However, many Ennahda party members I have talked to in Tunisia also pointed out that “specialisation” does not entail a separation of religion from politics and that the party still retains references to religion. In other words, Ennahda’s approach today signifies a refusal of both theocracy and rigid secularism.
But it is not ideology that stands at the core of the criticism against Ennahda today, as most Tunisians do not seem to approve of a strict secularism that totally ignores religious tenets in governance. Other political actors, including Saied, have previously defended political convictions on religious grounds.
Instead, the party is held responsible for the worsening of the general situation due to successive Ennahda-supported governments’ poor performance in key areas such as the economy or the fight against corruption. Similarly, the resignation of over 100 party figures was motivated primarily by political disagreements rather than an ideological rift.
In this context, it would be wrong to conclude that political Islam as an ideology will be the determinant factor in the future of Ennahda or Tunisia. Rather, the Ennahda movement’s future will depend on how it redefines party-movement relations and its place within the Tunisian political arena vis-a-vis other actors and the Tunisian public. Based on these factors, there seem to be three main potential pathways into the future for the political Islam movement in Tunisia.
The first is the Egyptian scenario, in which the regime will experience a fall into authoritarianism and Ennahda will face severe oppression like the Muslim Brotherhood. This appears to be the least likely of scenarios. But should it happen, we can, once again, expect resilience. Under oppression, Ennahda will likely articulate its social movement character over party politics by relying upon group solidarity and strong informal ties.
The second possibility is the return of electoral politics. Ennahda is at risk of being excluded from a new National Dialogue process and the political bargain, as some actors have hinted. A new consensus without Ennahda will be costly for the party in the short run but it is unlikely that this will bring its demise.
Although the party has lost its appeal to much of its previous activists and voter base, it still represents a segment of the Tunisian population, notably in the disenfranchised southern regions. Polls conducted after the July 25 “coup” in Tunisia put Ennahda support at around 12 percent, providing evidence that the party can further diminish but still survive in the coming years.
Furthermore, once democratic institutions are established they can create a venue of expression even for the actors who were not a party to the democratic bargain. The most famous example of this was the election of Saied, an outsider to the post-2011 democratic system. Hence, Ennahda can still find a place — albeit smaller — in the new political system, whether it is included in the national dialogue or not.
Lastly, Ennahda’s political deterioration or disappearance will not necessarily mean the disappearance of the interests, ideas, and policies it stands for. Political science literature suggests that political systems can be unstable with regards to party survival but the same issues and programs can survive in different parties from similar political positions.
In light of the recent resignations, political Islam in Tunisia can follow a path similar to the Turkish case where the “renewalist” wing of the Fazilet Party split from the main movement to form the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in 2001, four years after the “post-modern coup” of 1997.
If the leaders who resigned from Ennahda choose to organise as a new party, this could allow them to reboot political Islam in the country, creating a new conservative party clearly distinguishable from a social movement. The AK Parti example tells us that such a venture needs to appeal to a larger population beyond their usual support base and that it needs to deliver on the economic front to succeed.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to email@example.com