Events in Tunisia carry several important messages for us.
When the results of the Tunisian election came through, many were surprised that the An-Nahda Party had done so well, taking 90 of the 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly, around 41%. Officials in the country had predicted a maximum of 20% for An-Nahda.
As the party with the most seats, An-Nahda has created history; it is the first time that an Islamic movement has come to power through democratic means and look likely to be allowed to get on with the task of running the country. Hamas won the election in Palestine in 2006, of course, but faced a punishing blockade as a result. Islamists seized power through a military coup in Sudan in 1989, while the Islamic Salvation Front were on course to win the Algerian election in 1991 when the army stepped in and prevented the result from standing. Similarly, it took a revolution in Iran to bring Islamic groups to power and although the Justice and Development Party won the election in Turkey in 2002, it does not consider itself to be an Islamist party.
An-Nahda now has the opportunity to test its commitment to open reform in the first democratic test of its kind in the Arab world. The party’s plans were developed over the past 30 years by the Islamic Tendency Movement, founded by Shaikh Rashid Al-Ghannouchi who had studied Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy in Egypt.
The party’s win was not the only surprise of the election; of the 49 women elected, 42 were fielded by An-Nahda and the turnout was more than 80%. The other parties gaining seats in the Assembly included the Congress for the Republic, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty and the Progressive Democratic Party, which saw a drop in its support. The Communist Party won just three seats, while the People’s Petition for Freedom group, although it won some seats, was disqualified due to its links with the former regime.
It is clear that the electorate voted for moderation in both the Islamic and the secular aspects of Tunisian politics. This is very significant as the country has been ruled since its independence in 1956 by a radical secular regime which became even more radical and dictatorial over the years. So much so that Islamic movements were outlawed and their leaders fled into exile in Europe. Secular parties worked full-time to distort Tunisia’s Islamic identity by trying to link a religious outlook with backwardness and degradation.
Such an atmosphere hasn’t really changed that much since January 14 and the overthrow of the old regime. However, the relative freedom allowed An-Nahda to develop its legitimacy and become active, especially when its leaders returned from exile. The secular elite retained control of the public domain and the media and the Leftists had absolute control over the Committees of Transitional Authority such as the Supreme Council for achieving the goals of the revolution and the Independent Commission for organising elections. As such, secular propaganda continued to warn people against voting for An-Nahda, claiming that a win for Islam would jeopardise freedom, see the return of capital punishment, impose Hijab in public, reduce women’s rights, strangle the arts, close the banks and put an end to tourism. This extreme secular message was echoed by the Francophone media.
An-Nahda countered the campaign and made great efforts to reassure the people and allay their fears. The shock to some was that the masses did not respond to the incitement against An-Nahda when it came to the vote. The result looks like a repeat of what happened in Egypt last March when the general public countered the campaign run by a broad sector of intellectuals and politicians with the result that 70% supported amendments to the constitution.
There are many similarities between Tunisia and Egypt; both countries had a police regime to varying degrees. It was more aggressive in Tunisia, but more devious in Egypt. Both countries were subjected to a secular regime which was blunt and extreme in Tunisia but was sly and secretive in Egypt. Both countries denied Islamic groups to take part in political activity while allowing communist parties; again, this was open in Tunisia but done very slyly in Egypt. Both countries used the Islamist bogey to justify banning Muslim groups and to convince the West that they were the undesirable alternatives which would threaten Western interests. To implement their policies and mobilise public opinion behind them, the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes enlisted the help of secular intellectuals and ex-communists, and gave them control of media and cultural outlets until they became part of the regimes and one of their most important pillars.
Of course, both are also similar in the relatively peaceful revolutions which brought regime change. In Egypt the army sided with the revolution and formed a military council to run the country in transition, while the armed forces were neutral in Tunisia and the Chairman of the House of Representatives became the interim President in accordance with the Tunisian Constitution. In each country there had been a one-party monopoly of power led by the president and other marginal parties around it to give a veneer of democracy. Post-revolution, there was a rush to form parties so that now there are 115 political parties in Tunisia and a similar rush in Egypt where 50 new parties were announced following the formation of 120 coalitions.
While the Salafis in Egypt were involved campaigning and established two parties their counterpart in Tunisia refused to participate in the election and distributed leaflets 48 hours before it took place calling for a boycott. The only Islamic movement involved in political activity in Tunisia is represented by An-Nahda; in Egypt the Islamic movement has seven parties.
In Tunisia, the people followed the same approach as they did after independence in 1956. They elected a Constituent Assembly in the first place to represent the dominant forces of society to appoint the president, form the government, make laws and establish a constitution. This is to ensure that a civil authority will run the country during the transitional period until the establishment of a new constitution. In Egypt, a lot of time has been wasted in arguing about what comes first, elections or the constitution, even though a referendum on the constitutional amendments agreed on starting with elections. Because of this controversy, the transitional period has been extended and the military council still controls the country; it is not known when the presidential election will take place and when power will be transferred to civilians.
“Avoid anything that might spark civil strife between secularists and Islamists,” was the valuable advice to the liberals and Arab nationalists from Dr Moncef Marzouki, the leader of the Congress for the Republic party. The CPR represents the secular moderates, and maintains positive relations with An-Nahda. Political commentators suggest that Dr Marzouki and his peer from the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty, Dr Mustapha Ben Jafar, should form a strong but loose coalition in the Constituent Assembly and government. More than once, I have heard him calling for the separation of ideology from the electoral field and keep competition within the political sphere, not the ideological.
Other important messages and useful lessons to be be drawn from the Tunisian election can be summarised as follows:
- Do not lose your trust in ordinary citizens; they are more intelligent and aware than their simplicity conveys. Despite all the noise and hype filling the space around them, they are able to distinguish between the genuine and the intruder, and between truth and falsehood.
- Moderates in every faction, whether secular, Islamist or leftist, are closer to each other than the extremists in each faction. The ship of the nation will not continue sailing unless the moderates cooperate among themselves and form one front.
- The country belongs to all its citizens and no faction can lead it on its own; indeed, no single faction is entitled to in the first place. To achieve stability there is no alternative but the coalition of different forces which represent core forces of the society.
As there is no disagreement on the national interim goals represented in democracy, independence and social justice, any preoccupation with identities and final goals sets off controversy, dispels efforts and scatters forces.
Do not neglect social networks, as they have proven usefulness in mobilising the masses, especially the young people on whom the future depends.
Islamists engaged in political activity are required to do the following:
1. Reassure the people and allay their fears.
2. Get busy serving them instead of preaching to them.
3. Refrain from talking about the fate of mankind in the Hereafter, and assigning them places in heaven or hell.
4. Respect the private lives of the people that should not be interfered with as long as they are engaging within the limits of the law.
It is good to get lessons, but it is even better to understand and learn from them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.