Once Ennahda announced that it intends to abandon advocacy and preach work and transition into a "democratic party" during the preparations for its tenth conference, it provoked a storm of reactions and controversy amid its supporters and friends in the camp known academically as "political Islam". It even provoked reactions amongst Ennahda's opponents, as well as the opponents of this camp, both inside and outside Tunisia.
It is interesting that this controversy has surpassed the traditional importance of a country that is not considered to be a large or key Arab country historically, as before the Arab Spring, Tunisia was not very present in the circle of Arab political discussion making. This is unlike the larger Arab states that have historically received a lot of attention given their demographic size, geographic location and strategic role. These countries include Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and to some extent, Morocco.
So, what has caused all of this controversy? What turned it from being an internal Tunisian affair to an Arab, and even international discussion in the Arab and Western newspapers and media?
We can say that the great interest shown by the opponents of political Islam and Ennahda stems from the theory that these developments are a "harsh blow" to the trend. This is clear from the articles and coverage in the media outlets that are traditionally classified under the rival camp opposed to the Islamists.
It is also interesting that many of these articles and the coverage addressed the developments announced by Ennahda with suspicion, rather than reading them in a scientific manner and studying their future impact on the role of the Islamists in the Arab political field. They also failed to look into the implications of these developments and the possibility of them playing a positive role in resolving the political crisis experienced by a number of Arab countries.
The second thing we notice in the coverage of the "elites" opposed to the Islamists is the claim that Ennahda's announcement is "a trick" and a temporary matter in an attempt by the group to escape from the crisis that the Islamist trends are suffering after the losses they experienced as a result of the military coup in Egypt. This suggests that many of the Islamists' opponents are seeking to completely exclude the Islamists from the political process, regardless of the political nature of the Islamists and the concessions they make.
The question remains: Why did the developments in Ennahda create a storm within the pro-Ennahda Islamist trends and from balanced or neutral figures close to the movement who are in direct contact with the leadership and political actions, at least since Ennahda came out of exile in the early 1990's, after the bloody campaign launched by Ben Ali against the movement?
In order to attempt to answer this question, it is important to focus on the centrality of Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi, not only in Ennahda, but even among the Islamists in general. It has reached a point that this man has gained popularity in these circles that may surpass the popularity and significance of Ennahda itself, as well as the importance of political life in Tunisia. This is with the exception of the attention the country received after it sparked the Arab Spring and the hopes and dreams of the people.
When Tunisia's Ennahda movement began, Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi represented the progressive state of movements with an Islamic reference, even before the exile that changed, to some extent, the relationship of the movement with the international Islamic trend. Sheikh Rashid was viewed in many "Islamic" youth circles as an icon and intellectual who went beyond Tunisia. The Islamic movements have historically suffered from a lack of intellectuals despite being widespread and having popular, social and organisational strength. This is what made Sheikh Rashid represent a progressive and distinct state that makes up for this shortage among a large group of Islamists.
While Ennahda was a purely Tunisian movement, associated with the international Islamic trend, before it was in exile, Sheikh Rashid was a symbol of the critical readings of this trend. This gained him widespread popularity, especially amid the "critical" youth who condemned the "rigidity" of the Islamic movement and its intellectual ideology.
The symbolism embodied by Sheikh Rashid grew and spread even more after he, along with other Ennahda leaders, were in exile. This is because exile led to a stronger connection between Ennahda and the Islamic movements in the world. Ghannouchi was present and participated strongly in international leadership formations and structures closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Such leaderships include the International Union of Muslim Scholars, the European Council for Fatwa and Research and other Islamic organisations in Europe. He is still a leading member in some of these organisations today.
The representation and popularity of Sheikh Rashid and the large role he plays in the formation of critical or "progressive" ideas for the Islamic trend that surpasses Tunisia, explains the great attention given to Ennahda's recent actions. Many Islamists felt that they "lost" not only a Tunisian, but an Islamic intellectual. Others viewed Ennahda's announcement of leaving the Islamic political trend as a "blow" to the trend because of the Sheikh's importance and symbolism. Statements made by other Ennahda leaders further complicate the matter, as other friendly Islamists viewed the statements as a denial of the history the movement shared with its Islamist companions in creating its successes, victories, mistakes and defeats.
In addition to the Sheikh's influence on the reading of Ennahda's developments within the Islamic camp, there is also another ideological factor that is no less important than this influence. It is the question regarding the position of the Islamic "association" in Ennahda's new experience, as the new Ennahda is a Tunisian movement open to its Maghreb surroundings, as the movement has stated. This raises the question, within the Islamists, regarding the larger and further surroundings of the Arab and Islamic world, not only in the Maghreb.
The majority of the movements and reformist ideas with an Islamist reference have had two main concerns since the first quarter of the last century, according to most academic studies. The first concern is regarding confronting "Westernisation" in Islamic communities. The second is giving Islamic Sharia a role in governance, including the establishment of an Islamic "association" that would be an alternative to the Ottoman caliphate that collapsed as a result of WWI.
Despite the intellectual transformations of the Islamic trends throughout the past decades and the decline of the caliphate's centrality in their programmes and ideologies, especially throughout the stage of the political participation of a number of movements categorised under "political Islam", the idea of an Islamic association and affiliation with Islam has remained strongly present in the literature of these movements. This was reinforced even more during the Arab Spring and after the "victory" of the counter-revolutions in these countries.
The conflict taking place in the Arab region revealed that the concerns and battles in the region go beyond the borders and countries, as the influential political players in the region have become divided amongst rivaling camps spread across the Arab world. In addition to this, the Islamists in every Arab country represent one of the most important camps confronting the counter-revolution camp, which was and still works outside the scope of national boundaries.
In light of this heated reality in the region, the absence of an answer to the Islamic association question in Ennahda's new discourse has caused a relapse for the supporters of the Islamic trends at a time when the Islamic trend is subject to a war waged by opponents who are united by this. Despite the differences in their goals, interests and ideological backgrounds, the Islamists are losing a part that was connected to them, emotionally and by reference. This explains a large part of the controversy that surrounded Ennahda's recent developments in the ranks of its friends.
I will end by saying that Ennahda must not be overly sensitive to the controversy sparked by the intellectual changes it announced during its 10th conference, as this debate shows the importance and significance of the movement. It also indicates the importance of the developments and their implications and influence across the region. In addition to this, a movement that announces itself as transitioning into a democratic party must accept the discussion and critical reading of its ideas and actions.
Translated from Arabi21, 15 June 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.