The Arab Spring flowers in Tunisia – ushers in Islamist party

Tunisian elections

Tunisian election posters

Tunisia has been regarded as one of the only successes of the Arab upheaval, having managed to avoid the huge bloodshed and violence which have characterised the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.   Yesterday Tunisia held its first free elections since their revolution, amidst great excitement and encouragement from the free world and its own citizens.

However, as we have learned to our detriment over the years, elections don’t necessarily mean democracy, and democracy doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidates who win will either be democratic in their rule or friendly to the West and Israel.

Early results of yesterday’s voting in Tunisia reveal that the Islamists have claimed most of the votes

“We are not far from 40 percent. It could be a bit more or a bit less, but we are sure to take 24 (of the 27) voting districts,” Samir Dilou, a member of Ennahda’s political bureau said. Analysts widely predicted Ennahda to win the most votes but fall short of a majority in elections for a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint a president to form a caretaker government. Most forecasts point to the Ennahda party emerging with the biggest share of the vote, an outcome that worries secularists.

Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, models his party on the moderate Islamist rule of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. He says his party will respect women’s rights and not try to enforce any personal morality code on Tunisians. But the prospect of it winning a share of power still makes some people feel uncomfortable in Tunisia.

The country has secular traditions which go back to its first president after independence from France. He called the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, an “odious rag”. An Ennahda victory would be the first Islamist success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Tunisia has a tiny minority of hard-line Islamists, but the policies Ennahda espouses are more in keeping with mainstream Tunisia, where most people take a laid-back view of Islam’s strictures on things like drinking alcohol.

What are the implications of a victory for the Ennahda party?

Mindful that some people in Tunisia and elsewhere see the resurgence of Islamists as a threat to modern, liberal values, the party officials stressed that Ennahda would not try to monopolize power.

Ennahda is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, who was forced into exile in Britain for 22 years because of harassment by Ben Ali’s police.

A soft-spoken scholar, he dresses in suits and opennecked shirts, while his wife and daughter wear the hijab.

Ghannouchi is at pains to stress his party will not enforce any code of morality on Tunisian society, or on the millions of Western tourists who holiday on its beaches. He models his approach on the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The party’s rise is met with ambivalence by some people in Tunisia. The country’s strong secularist traditions go back to the first post-independence president, Habiba Bourguiba, who called the hijab an “odious rag.”

Who is Rachid Ghannouchi and is he as moderate as his supporters claim?  The article in this link, dating from 2001, gives us some more background:

Ghannouchi is occasionally projected in the Western media as one of the more “moderate” Islamic leaders. Perceived as an intellectual, he frequently attends seminars and conferences and makes speeches to renowned think-tanks. He has a degree of credibility among Western intellectuals looking for a less harsh representation of Islamic revivalism than what is shown by the violent groups across the Middle East.

The observers point out that even the most radical of Islamist leaders tend to espouse democracy when benefiting from political asylum in the West. They also note that during the 1990s had frequently visited Khartoum and was known to have good links to the radical Islamist leader Shaikh Hassan Al Turabi, who is now politically marginalised. In those days, Turabi was known as the power behind the presidency and he had extensive links with violent groups from Algeria to Pakistan.

The Background: From the beginnings of the politicised Islamic movement in Tunisia in the early 1980s, the state has kept a close watch on its development. An Nahda had its roots in the Mouvement de la Tendence Islamique (MTI), founded in 1981 by Ghannouchi. MTI was founded during a brief period of political liberalisation under the regime of late president Bourguiba. But it was not allowed to function legally, because of the laws against parties based on religion.

Nevertheless, Ghannouchi became vocal in his calls for the regime to share power, and he was jailed in 1981. He was freed in 1984. On his release he was forbidden from teaching, speaking in public, publishing or travelling. MTI continued its activities discreetly despite the setback. In 1987, Ghannouchi was again arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the Bourguiba regime; in fact, in November 1987, there was a constitutional coup by Bin Ali.

The period between November 1987 and mid-1989 was a positive one for the Islamists. On May 15, 1988, Ghannouchi was released from prison and in the same year the new Bin Ali government gave amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, eased anti-militant restrictions imposed by Bourguiba and encouraged theologians to propagate Islam. It also ordered the Muslim prayer to be broadcast on radio and TV for the first time in many years.

The MTI was renamed An Nahda in early 1989 to remove religious overtones. But this sent the first warning signal, as it indicated an intention to enter the political mainstream. Soon the negative signals began to mount. The government rejected repeated requests for the renamed An Nahda to be legalised. Ties between the government and An Nahda became worse by the time of the legislative elections in April 1989. The result of the elections in which candidates associated with An Nahda are said to have won between 12-15% of the vote (some estimates say 30%) turned the government against the party. The government’s attitude towards An Nahda hardened even further after the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in Algeria was legalised in August 1989. Ghannouchi went into self-imposed exile in mid-1989 and began criticising the regime.

Although all this political activity, exile, and resistance to the regime sounds very heroic, and the Ben Ali regime was corrupt and violent and deserved to be overthrown, we still need to remember that Annahda was banned for being Islamic extremists – an even worse prospect than the Ben Ali regime.  The enemy of our enemy is not always our friend.

And now Ghannouchi and his Annahda party are back in Tunisia and have attained power, even if only in a coalition government. Have they overcome their Islamist leanings? Will they agree to share power with a secularist party?

These are questions that remain to be answered and meanwhile leave us feeling very concerned.

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9 Responses to The Arab Spring flowers in Tunisia – ushers in Islamist party

  1. NormanF says:

    Islamists are not moderates or democrats. They may modify their tactics to win votes but their core program of imposing the Shariah and totalitarian rule remains intact.

    In countries like Turkey and Tunisia, it may serve Islamist interests to preserve a facade of pluralist democracy, But its only a facade. They have no intention of sharing power with any one else or ceding it to their opponents.

    After all a system based on a divine right to rule must put obedience to Heaven above the passions of necessarily transient majorities. One thing is clear from the Tunisian election outcome: secular parties are unlikely to win free elections in an Arab country.

    • anneinpt says:

      You’re quite right Norman. The previous dictatorial regimes may have been terrible, violent and cruel, but things are certainly not going to improve with Islamists in charge.

      It’s not only a matter of paying allegiance to Heaven. The problem, as you say, is with Shariah itself, which if imposed in practice, is totalitarian.

  2. cba says:

    But not to worry, Libya’s version of sharia will be moderate–don’t you feel better already?

  3. Earl says:

    All as predictable as night following day. At least to the non-political-elites in the West (who remain as clueless about Islam as ever).

  4. Earl says:

    A good example- the Western elite media photos often (cough- Toronto Globe and Mail- cough) will crop Ghannouchi to remove the upper part of his head. Resplendent with its zebibah.

    That artful bit of doctoring precludes any person half-knowledgeable of Islam from immediately and correctly concluding that the new governing party in Tunisia is run by a Muslim fundamentalist. And that shariah law will be the High Law of Tunisia henceforward.

    But ask any of the Western elites as to the significance of a zebibah, and I’d bet my (hypothetical) 401K that all one would get is a blank gaze or a multiculti prevarication.

  5. Earl says:

    Ghannouchi- all cleaned up and “Westernized” for the clueless Western elites…

    • anneinpt says:

      It’s the same sort of thing with Mahmoud Abbas. He doesn’t wear a kaffiyeh, he’s relatively clean-shaven and tidy, not like the bumbling Arafat. A terrorist in a suit but you go persuade the West of that.

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