Civil Islamism — Recognizing Another Winner in Tunisia

Hassan I. Mneimneh, Better Angels Blog, 10/19/2015

The accomplishments of Tunisia cannot be dismissed. Through a healthy civil society that is active in framing and shaping the political process, and through the actual realization of the virtues of compromise, Tunisia has so far avoided the abyss. The civil society "quartet" has now been publicly recognized. Credit is also due to Ennahda for accepting a notion still unachieved elsewhere in the region: that all societies are plural, and that no single view can be imposed.

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Subjects: Depolarization, By IAV Leaders and Staff, Polarization, International civil society, Islam/West

More by: Hassan I. Mneimneh

At a time of rising polarization, after the moment of enthusiasm for the January 2011 Revolution had passed, a "quartet" of civil actors, representing labor, lawyers, and human rights activists, summoned the main political forces in Tunisia to a national dialogue aimed at avoiding a looming existential crisis. Electoral mandates were expiring, with no agreed-upon alternative framework set in place. Their action was successful. In the fall of 2014, Tunisia accomplished a genuine transition to a functioning democracy. Credible parliamentary and presidential elections were held, with winners promising to be inclusive, and losers conceding political defeat – events virtually unknown in the region. The efforts of the "quartet" were recently rewarded with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. Members of the quartet have accepted the honor on behalf of the true winner, Tunisia and its people. In a region burdened by widening gaps in ideology and trust, it may be appropriate to recognize another winner: Tunisia's main Islamist party, Ennahda, and its leader, Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, for accomplishments significant well beyond the borders of this small country.

Tunisia had witnessed the first manifestation of the "Arab Spring" – a series of public protests that challenged the long-anchored authoritarian order in many Arab states. It was the best poised for a positive transition from its revolutionary upheaval. Compared to Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where the expectation of a "Spring" has dissipated with on-going tragedies, or to Egypt and Bahrain, where the hopes for reform were thwarted, and autocracy had been re-instated, Tunisia had seen its dictator succumb fast to the popular calls for his ouster, fleeing the country in a rush that spared Tunisia the death and destruction suffered in subsequent "Arab Spring" uprisings. The sudden departure of the embattled President was itself a reflection of a Tunisian reality limiting his ability to pursue dictatorship. The professionalism and popular roots of the armed forces, in a country with virtually no religious or ethnic cleavages, reduced their availability to him as a tool of oppression. More importantly, Tunisia has a robust labor movement (two of the four "quartet" members are labor federations). Labor leaders indicated early in the revolution that a brutal crackdown will not be tolerated. The odds were not in favor of the corrupt autocracy, so the autocrat fled.

Tunisia, however, is not without political and cultural rifts. The main demarcation line, sharpening in the day after the revolution, was one between two conceptions of Tunisia itself, as a society, state, and commonwealth.

The first conception held that Tunisia is distinct from its deeper Arab-Muslim environment in being progressive, secular, modernist, and reformist. These traits, first manifested almost two centuries ago, have been strengthened by the country's proximity to Europe, as a Mediterranean outpost open for exchange, and by the French colonial presence which ended with the 1956 independence. Accordingly, Habib Bourguiba, the nation's first president ruling as an authoritarian father-figure for more than three decades, materialized the Tunisian spirit, in insisting on secularism and women's rights. Holders of this view often express appreciation for Bourguiba's successor, Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali – who acceded to power in a coup palace in 1987 and lasted until 2011 – for continuing the focus on economic development, while also faulting him for the nepotism and corruption which attributed to his downfall.

However, a considerably different view of Tunisia is offered in competition. In this alternative, Tunisia is said to be a deeply Islamic society that has witnessed the essential element of its identity, which is Islam, denied by an elite fostered by and attached to France and the West. This urban and affluent elite stratum is in considerable divergence with the sensitivities and the priorities of the masses. Autocracy was no accident of history; it was the sole means to impose a forced secularization, including the subversion of Tunisia's venerable Islamic learning tradition. Voices of Islamic dissent, however mild and tolerant, were thus faced with repression and persecution. Disproportionately long and harsh prison sentences were the fate of Islamists, while the alleged technocracy of development was morphing into a kleptocracy. The revolution of 2011 was thus understood, in this conception, as being an expression of cultural grievances as well as economic ones.

The aftermath of the Revolution witnessed the expected hardening of the two ideological propositions: Secular modernist Tunisia was under attack from the nefarious East brandishing religion as an instrument of regimentation and oppression, according to the first; while Muslim Tunisia had to resist the attempt at a cultural and economic counter-revolution aided by a cloaked neo-colonialism from the West, according to the second. At the edges of these narratives, voices of intransigence were rising. Proponents of an Egyptian-style military cleansing of the system from the encroachment of Islamists were becoming increasingly vocal, while calls for a more fundamental and more brutal "regime change" through Islamist radicalism and open violence were emerging, and even acted upon.

Ennahda, Tunisia's main Islamist party, sharing political power with non-Islamist partners, was vilified by many as a Trojan horse set to prepare for a full takeover of Tunisia's society and politics. "Evidence" for the ill intent of Ennahda, and its soft-spoken leader in particular, was circulated. Ghannouchi, in one famous video segment, is heard urging radical elements patience. For his detractors, it was a smoking gun. For his supporters, it was merely his way of bringing them to the political fold.

In response to the "quartet" initiative, and irrespective of ascribed intent, Ennahda and Ghannouchi scored a first for an Islamist formation: Ennahda surrendered political rule to a non-partisan technocratic cabinet. Never before had an Islamist party anywhere willingly abandoned power. The calculations may had been that the putative elections would renew the popular mandate for an Ennahda-led government. Yet the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections failed to provide the Islamists with such a mandate. Still, Ennahda remained within the system, conceding defeat and pledging cooperation.

Politics in Tunisia, as elsewhere in the region, is a murky affair. The longer term prospects of Tunisia, with the Libyan quagmire next door, and potentially returning Tunisian Jihadists – one of the largest foreign contingents in Syria and Iraq today – threaten the precarious stability that has been achieved.

Yet, the accomplishments of Tunisia cannot be dismissed. Through a healthy civil society that is active in framing and shaping the political process, and through the actual realization of the virtues of compromise, Tunisia has so far avoided the abyss. The civil society "quartet" has now been publicly recognized. Credit is also due to Ennahda for accepting a notion still unachieved elsewhere in the region: that all societies are plural, and that no single view can be imposed.

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