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Ennahda: Democratic conservatives, not Islamists

Perhaps the most enduring and lasting impression that I have after speaking to and spending time with Ennahda officials and activists, as well as being familiar with their politics, is that Tunisia's "Islamists" are simply not Islamists. Although key figures and the founders of the party Rached Ghannouchi and Abdelfattah Mourou were unavailable for interview, I was still able to speak to Ennahda MPs, senior party officials and former ministers who are deeply knowledgeable about the party, its ideology and methodology, and perhaps even have a hand in forming Ennahda's direction and vision. Although there are many theological and philosophical issues with terms such as "Islamism", "political Islam" and even "democratic Islam", I will focus as much as possible on Ennahda's brand of politics.

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With that in mind, something needs to be said about Islam and democracy. I noted that a significant number of Ennahda's supporters that I spoke to on the streets of Tunis, the capital, were practicing Muslims. They supported the party because they wanted to see a more Islamic Tunisia, inspired by their faith's exhortations for Muslims to establish justice, morality, mercy and shura, or consultation. This idea of shura constituting a kind of early Islamic concept of democracy seemed oddly misplaced to me, and perhaps demonstrates a lack of awareness about what democracy actually means. Most Tunisians I spoke to assumed that democracy only meant elections and the right to choose one's leaders in the spirit of shura. They did not understand that it also meant that legislation, in essence, also comes from the people, whereas shura in Islam does not negate the Sharia, or Islamic law. For example, one cannot simply organise a vote to legalise narcotics, forbidden in an Islamic system, even if 95 per cent of the electorate approved.

This understanding of democracy and Islam permeates, to some degree, the senior ranks of the party itself. Abdelkarim Harouni, former Ennahda transportation minister and long-time member, told me that democracy is a kind of shura, and the assumption is that, as the Tunisian people are overwhelmingly Muslim, the constitution can be considered Islamic, thus "[Tunisia's] laws are in accordance with the constitution, which means that [they are] in accordance with Islam".

Harouni added: "In our Islamic thought, we believe that government in Islam comes from shura, and shura comes from the people." I am certain that the vast majority of Muslims would agree that their leaders should be chosen by consultation of the people. However, a Muslim majority country is not necessarily an Islamic one. Take Egypt, for example, which has in its constitution that "the principles of Islamic Sharia are the principle source of legislation", yet the entire world has seen how Al-Sisi's thugs slaughtered defenceless Egyptian Muslims en masse in Rabaa and other massacres, and even burnt mosques. Hardly Islamic, whatever the constitution says.

When I placed this contradiction of the establishment of an Islamic system within a democratic republic before Rafik Abdessalem, Ennahda's former foreign minister, he told me: "We do not see that there is a contradiction, because Ennahda is an Islamic, patriotic and democratic movement…that believes in democracy." He did not elaborate on what it meant to be both Islamic and democratic, but Ghannouchi himself has stated that Ennahda does not believe in autocratic Islam, instead preferring a model similar to Turkey's AK party: "Why are we put in the same place as a model far from our thought, like the Taliban or the Saudi model, while there are other successful Islamic models…that combine Islam and modernity?"

According to Ennahda's website, that contains Arabic video lectures that describe their journey, Ennahda's transition from Islamism to democracy came in the 1980s. Originally called the Islamic Tendency Movement and with organisational roots starting in the early 1970s, Ennahda's political vision and action borrowed extensively from the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest group associated with political Islam in the world. However, they found their own ideas to be more in tune with secular authors, as the Islamist authors did not provide the answers they sought. Ennahda then began to develop a uniquely Tunisian strain of what I will describe as democratic conservativism which, in the context of the Middle East, seeks to maintain links to Tunisia's Arab-Islamic heritage. In terms of democratic parties, this is not unusual, even in the West. David Cameron, Britain's Conservative prime minister, recently gave a Christmas speech extolling the virtues of Britain's Christian values. Although he was mocked by the public who said "you ain't no Christian, bruv", it still does not reduce the fact that, to some extent at least, Cameron identifies with Britain's Christian roots.

Indeed, Saida Ounissi, an Ennahda MP and one of the youngest women in parliament, told me that Ennahda has a European analogue in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union and that she does not believe that Ennahda is an Islamist party. This may strike many readers as odd, particularly as mainstream media sources, both Western and Arab, describe Ennahda as one of a series of "moderate Islamists" (another poorly defined and unquantified term) that include Turkey's AK party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Development Party of Morocco, and a score or more of others. But it is precisely because of the media that Ounissi wants to distance the party from Islamism: "[We are] being called Islamists by those who establish concepts like…academics and journalists…I'm not going to fight them on the [definition of the] label." The relinquishing of the Islamist brand is something Ennahda has done before, and this is because of the violent actions of other groups like Daesh being used to stigmatise any who identify with political Islam. Simply put, and as Ounissi explained to me, they did not want to be placed in the same basket.

Ennahda's politics since the overthrow of the ancien régime has certainly reflected its democratic credentials. The party has willingly shared government, and even stepped away from it, and all in the name of pragmatic power sharing and gradual change. Indeed, several Ennahda members expressed to me their desire to see the divisions in their rival, Nidaa Tounes, cease.

Harouni told me that Ennahda wants "strong…unified parties" in Tunisia, and that they want Nidaa Tounes's rifts to heal because they want to "continue with consensus…we don't want to dominate government". This seemed strange to me, as it would surely be the dream of any political party to watch the parliamentary presence of their rivals shrink. However, perhaps it is fair to say that Ennahda wants to avoid giving its more liberal opponents an excuse to disrupt the progress they have made by creating hysteria that "the Islamists are taking over!" which may lead to a similar disaster as witnessed by Egypt. Also, the turbulence that any new system will undoubtedly go through cannot be blamed on them, but will be shared by all parties.

This pragmatism has gone as far as Ghannouchi attending Nidaa Tounes's conferences and being warmly greeted by his rivals. It is worth bearing in mind that Nidaa Tounes is a party whose main raison d'être was to gather as many liberal and left-leaning politicians together as possible in order to counter Ennahda. That being said, Ghannouchi gave a speech at their conference and described the rival parties as being two wings belonging to the same Tunisian bird. He also said that the existence and cooperation of the two parties created "balance in political life", and that he is "happy with a strong and united Nidaa Tounes". The charming imagery and metaphors employed by Ghannouchi's rhetoric is confusing, as Nidaa Tounes counts amongst its leadership many officials from the Ben Ali era of dictatorship who had imprisoned, tortured and killed many Tunisians, including those of an Islamic bent. Ennahda ought to be careful, as there is such a thing as moving on from the past and making compromises in order to ensure peace and progress, but that is far removed from making baffling overtures at going hand-in-glove with the remnants of a barbaric regime.

What Ennahda's ultimate strategic objectives by playing such a conciliatory and gentle political game with its rivals remain to be seen. However, through its soft pragmatism and willingness to make concessions, Ennahda has managed to weather potentially severe political storms, such as the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid in February 2013. Belaid was a vocal critic of Ennahda, and his assassination could have easily been laid at their door, not as perpetrators, but as overseers of an unstable post-dictatorship political environment. Sensing the precarious nature of the situation, Hamadi Jebali, then prime minister and formerly an Ennahda member, reacted swiftly and defused any attempts at ousting them by dissolving his government which eventually led to a technocratic government until new elections could be held. Through these moves and others, Ennahda has shown itself to be a shrewd political operative who knows its limits well, and has seen what awaits those who reach too far, too fast in neighbouring countries.

Whatever Ennahda's interparty politics and its reasons behind them, one thing is for certain and that is that it is a democratic party committed to a secular Tunisia. The brands of "Islamism" and "political Islam" that are so often bandied about the media these days do not apply to it. Ennahda draws upon the conservative Islamic heritage of Tunisia but does not seek to fundamentally overturn the foundations of the republic. Any claims to the contrary, and that Ennahda is actually a closet Islamist party, is speculation at best and rampant defamation at the worst with no evidenced foundation in reality.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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