Tunisia’s Ennahda party, the first Islamist movement to secure power after the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts, conceded defeat on Monday in elections, perhaps drawing a lesson from the failed power grab of Islamists in Egypt.
Unlike former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist scholar who spent decades in exile in Britain, acted pragmatically when faced with overwhelming opposition.
Instead of trying to force his party’s Islamist vision on much of the population that is less religious, Ghannouchi did not overstay his welcome, deciding to continue playing the political game, instead of seizing power in ways reminiscent of Morsi.
His party ruled in a coalition until it was forced to make way for a caretaker government during a political crisis at the start of this year.
Ennahda is playing a smarter game than the Brotherhood did in Egypt, understanding that in Tunisia, where at least half of the country opposes Islamists, it must follow the path of slowly building grassroots support.
However, Ghannouchi’s pragmatism should not be mistaken for moderation.
Martin Kramer, an expert on the Middle East and president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, has followed Ghannouchi’s sayings and doings. He “has urged violence against US interests, and he continues to demand Israel’s destruction,” Kramer wrote in “A US Visa for Rachid Ghannouchi?,” an article the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published back in 1994.
In 1989, on a visit to the US, Ghannouchi lashed out at the US for its reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, calling it “Crusader America” and the “enemy of Islam,” and saying that the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, was doing good – “joining together two Arab states out of twenty-two, praise be to God.”
Ghannouchi went on to state: “There must be no doubt that we will strike anywhere against whoever strikes Iraq... We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world... Muslim youth must be serious in their warning to the Americans that a blow to Iraq will be a license to strike American and Western interests throughout the Islamic world.”
Ghannouchi took two visits to Iran in 1990 meant to thaw relations between Sunni Islamists and Shi’ite Iran. Kramer quotes him as saying on the second visit, at the Islamic Conference on Palestine, which included Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad leaders: “The greatest danger to civilization, religion and world peace is the United States administration. It is the Great Satan.”
Moreover, in 1991, he was quoted as urging Palestinian Islamists to destroy Israel.
“I think that the approach of Palestinian Islamists must be the liberation of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” the Tunisian Islamist said. “Any part that is liberated is a gain, provided the price is not the sale of the rest of Palestine.
“Palestine belongs to the Muslims and must be liberated in its entirety. The truth cannot be divided,” he said.
Even though Ennahda lost to the Nidaa Tounes party this week, with preliminary tallies showing an 80 seat to 67 seat spread in the 217-member assembly, the Islamist party remains a major political player, waiting patiently for its next chance to win power in elections.
Ennahda’s poor performance leading the country echoes that of Morsi’s failed leadership in Egypt, where supporters of the former regime of president Hosni Mubarak threw their support behind the rising military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to counter the Islamists.
Led by Beji Caid Essebsi, a former parliament speaker under autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Nidaa Tounes emerged as a political force in 2012 by rallying opposition to the first Ennahda-led government when Islamists won around 40 percent of seats in the assembly.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a principal research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a contributor to The Jerusalem Report, told The Jerusalem Post that from the outset, Tunisia was the one country in the Arab upheavals “which had a reasonable chance at translating the protests and overthrow of the old regime into some kind of positive change.”
Maddy-Weitzman attributes this to some well-known factors: ethnic and religious homogeneity, legitimate and well-defined collective identity as Tunisians, a relatively large middle class, a tradition of active civil society (such as unions, lawyers, teachers), a tradition of openness to the outside world, and a common aversion to return to the era of dictatorship.
“During its many years in opposition, Ennahda had demonstrated a certain degree of openness to the ideas of pluralism, competitive elections, and the rule of law, while decrying both ‘extremist Islamism’ and ‘extremist secularism,’” he said.
“When the pressure on Ennahda became too great following the killing of two secular leftist politicians, it ceded the prime ministership,” he continued. “To be sure, the example of the MB in Egypt taught Ennahda a lesson on what not to do – not to overreach, reinforcing its own innate tendency to go slow.”
Maddy Weitzman asserts that the Tunisian Islamist party “will still need to satisfy its base in order to avoid being seen as just another political party,” something that could cause further tensions.
All the parties will have to demonstrate that they are delivering by addressing economic difficulties and handling the security situation, he said.
“Young Tunisians have joined the Islamic State or Nusra Front, and Tunisian security forces have been attacked by Islamist militants in the border regions,” he said, noting that in the presidential elections next month, “Ennahda will not run a candidate, in order to avoid further polarizing the public.”
Maddy-Weitzman points out that many pundits have been “heralding a ‘democratic spring’ or an ‘Islamic winter,’” though in the end these conclusions are shallow.
“There is no one size fits all category in Arab politics, and even Islamist movements behave differently in different countries, according to the situation,” he said.
Sarah Feuer, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post from Tunisia on Wednesday that for months Ennahda has been stressing that in a transitional context such as Tunisia’s, a consensus government is more important than “majority rules.”
“Such rhetoric suggests the party will push for a governing coalition in which various parties share political power throughout the legislative and executive branches,” she said.
“Ennahda undoubtedly wanted to avoid the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but it’s important to remember that domestic factors inside Tunisia – principally, the two political assassinations, and increasing antagonism toward the movement on the part of civil society – played equally, if not more, important roles in convincing Ennahda to hand over power to a caretaker government,” asserted Feuer.
“Before the election, a number of surveys were suggesting that many Tunisians no longer believed democracy was preferable to alternative forms of government,” but after “having observed the election up close, I can tell you that Tunisians are clearly still willing to put their faith in the democratic process,” she said.
The elections were bad for all incumbents, not just the Islamist party, Feuer said.
Reuters contributed to this report.