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Re-emergence of Islamists in Tunisia

Shakir Noori writes: Upcoming elections are an opportunity for parties such as Al Nahda to cement a place in mainstream politics

Re-emergence of Islamists in Tunisia
Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/Gulf News
Gulf News

In Tunisia, the most significant development after the revolution has been the re-emergence of the Al Nahda party after decades in the political wilderness under ousted president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali’s repressive rule.

Its exiled leader, Rashid Gannouchi and about 70 other members flew home from Britain two weeks after Bin Ali was forced from power following violent protests, sparked by the desperate act of self-immolation by a poor vegetable vendor in a remote town.

The ruinous legacy of Bin Ali’s 23-year kleptocracy includes a crippled political establishment, a weak opposition and a non-existent leadership. The transition authority that took over is led by former prime minister Mohammad Gannouchi, whose attempts to form a government of national unity have floundered, even as he tried in vain to block the home-coming of the exiled Al Nahda leader.

No sooner had he landed in Tunis, the Al Nahda leader announced that he would work to “build a state of law” — although he did not clarify if he meant Sharia law or otherwise.

The last time Gannouchi was so close to the heart of Tunisian politics was in 1989, when Al Nahda obtained 20 per cent of the popular vote in legislative elections. Bin Ali, who had only been in power for three years then, chose to ignore the voice of this large chunk of the electorate and banned the party and threw its leaders into prison.

His actions were only a precursor to the even harsher treatment meted out to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won a landslide in elections in neighbouring Algeria in 1992, only to be suppressed brutally.

It marked the beginning of two decades of exclusion of the Islamists from power across much of North Africa, fuelled at least in part by western fears of a ‘domino effect’ across the entire Arab world. Their cause was also not helped by the violent nature of the FIS’s fightback in Algeria.

Moderate approach

Bin Ali had been considered in the West as a bulwark against ‘fundamentalism’. The fact is, however, that Al Nahda, unlike the Algerian Islamist movement, had never turned to violence, even after the exiling of its leadership, and was more like the moderate Islamists of the AKP in Turkey than the FIS.

Gannouchi is a controversial figure. Ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, he has always been a strident opponent of the Bin Ali regime. By the early 1990s, after the Second Gulf War, he called for a “holy war”, causing an immediate split in Al Nahda’s ranks. The lawyer and party number two, Abdul Fattah Mourou, followed by the majority of party cadres, openly disagreed with the leader’s “unrealistic” call.

Nonetheless, the regime gave them long prison sentences, from which many were only released recently. The Islamic party is now dejected and there are real fears that the followers could return to extremism if political instability sets in.

In many ways, Tunisia is a paradox. A vibrant, educated middle class and the equal rights for women make it a model of modernity in the Arab world.

The Salafist ideology does not have a strong social support base in Tunisia. The social achievements of the enlightened, if equally autocratic, president Habib Bourguiba, were bequeathed to his successor Bin Ali, who ended up closing all spaces for free expression. The widespread religiosity that emerged in recent years surfaced during the street violence that marked the Jasmine Revolution against Bin Ali, reflecting a deep social division.

Political opposition — secular, Islamic, right, left — in both countries was rendered hopelessly weak by the ruling elite and it was left to the ordinary people themselves to raise their voices in defence of their rights.

In Tunisia, the Islamic movement has a long history of facing the secular system that emerged after the defeat of the French occupation forces in 1956. Under the French, they had suffered violent oppression (imprisonment, execution, and exile).

The Islamic Movement in Tunisia was born in the late 1960s, as a reaction to Bourguiba’s efforts to emulate the ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey by shutting down Al Zatouniya mosque foundation, banning polygamy and declaring equality between men and women. It found its inspiration in the experience of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the ideology of its founder Hassan Al Banna.

Although they did not seek to gain political traction at the time, the Islamists started garnering popular support among young Tunisians in universities, mosques and streets.

For a period, the establishment and the Islamists followed a ‘live and let live’ policy, but by the early 1980s Al Nahda became politically engaged, drawing the ire of the openly westernised ruling elite.

Al Nahda may have been marginalised in the past, but the years of humiliation could strengthen its electoral power. The upcoming elections will be a real test. The democratic opposition recognised this risk and has long argued for the reinstatement of Al Nahda in mainstream politics, hoping it would make the party shun extremism.

The situation is ambiguous now, although no one knows for how long. Will the government continue the policy of exclusion, or seek to integrate into mainstream politics groups whose ideology is based on faith? Will the Islamists demand their share of political power or be content with ideology-driven social activism?

All one knows is, in the short run at least, we can expect some drama. It is intriguing that the Islamists were conspicuously absent from the Jasmine Revolution.

Shakir Noori is a senior journalist and author who resides in Dubai and Paris.

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