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Will Ennahda's transformation from the missionary to the political actually work?

The roots of Ennahda are found in Al-Jama'ah Al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Group), a small da'wah (missionary) and reform community made up of Tunisian individuals who in the late 1960s and early 1970s followed the methodology of the Indian-founded Tablighi Jamaat and used as a platform the government-sponsored Qur'anic Preservation Society (QPS).

The affiliates of this group were at the same time informed intellectually by the writings of prominent Muslim Brotherhood personalities, including Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abdul Qadir Awdah, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, Sayyid Sabiq and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Its founders — Rachid Ghannouchi, Abdelfattah Moro, Al-Fadhil Al-Baladi, Salih bin Abdullah and Ahmida Enneifer — travelled regularly to Algeria between 1970 and 1972 to attend Malik Bennabi's annual Islamic thought seminars.

The subsequent banning of the group by the government in Tunis in the mid-1970s prompted its leaders to question the utility of the open activity of the Tabligh which, they thought, tended to work more successfully in an open environment such as that of India, Pakistan or Western Europe where basic freedoms were guaranteed. From then on, Al-Jama'ah was compelled to adopt an Ikhwan style of dual, covert-overt, activism.

The success of the Iranian revolution in 1979 encouraged Al-Jama'ah Al-Islamiyah to take further steps toward institutionalising its activism. It convened its first ever general conference (henceforth referred to as al-mu'tamar at-ta'sisi — the Founding Conference) that same year. In addition to adopting a Constitution, the conference elected for the first time the top leadership of the movement, which consisted of a Shura Council, an Executive Bureau and a president. Rachid Ghannouchi was the first elected president.

In 1981, Tunisia's then President Habib Bourguiba's Prime Minister, Mohamed Mzali, announced that his government would allow the formation of political parties prior to calling for parliamentary elections. Having a year earlier taken the precautionary measure of dissolving Al-Jama'ah, its leadership announced the formation of Harakat Al-Ittijah Al-Islami (the Islamic Tendency Movement, known by its French acronym, MTI). The new movement's manifesto expressed its commitment to the democratic process, including pluralism and the sharing and alternation of power; democracy in Tunisia, said the MTI, should exclude no one, not even communists. It affirmed that the electoral process was the source of legitimacy.

However, this measure proved to be no protection against the wrath of Tunisia's autocrat. On 17 July 1981, the leaders of the MTI and five hundred of its members were arrested and jailed until 1984.

As part of another crackdown in August 1987, about ninety of the MTI's leading members were brought to trial before the State Security Court, accused of inciting violence and seeking to change the nature of the state. However, three months later, Tunisia's dictator Bourguiba was toppled in a bloodless coup and the new President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ordered the release of all MTI leaders and members.

In an attempt to gain recognition under a new law, in December 1988 the movement changed its name to Hizb Al-Nahdah (the Renaissance Party, known universally as Ennahda), dropping the previously overt reference to Islam. In addition, Ennahda declared its acceptance of the Personal Affairs Code, which it had previously opposed for violating Islamic Shari'ah law in matters such as its prohibition of polygamy, for example.

These were seen by some at the time as two major concessions that could undermine the credibility of the movement and its claim to be Islamic. However, the movement leaders believed that this was a price they had to pay in order to secure a place in Tunisia's political landscape and avoid further proscription.

Still not officially licenced despite having lodged an application, Ennahda members ran as independents competing for 129 of the 141 available parliamentary seats in the April 1989 elections. They emerged as the largest opposition force, winning 14.5 per cent of the national vote and as much as 30 per cent in some urban centres, including Tunis, the capital.

On 6 June 1989, Ennahda's application for the status of a political party was rejected, leaving its supporters liable to prosecution on the grounds of membership in an illegal organisation, an offence punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.

Despite the Ennahda independent candidates' impressive showing at the polls, none of them were returned to parliament. In fact, all of the parliamentary seats were awarded to candidates from the ruling RCD Party headed by Ben Ali.

The elections were supposed to mark the beginning of a new era of national reconciliation. Instead, the poll results triggered a government campaign aimed at the complete uprooting of the Tunisian Islamic movement. As a result, in May 1989 Rachid Ghannouchi and hundreds of Ennahda members fled the country. Ennahda's leader and scores of his followers ended up in London, where they were granted political asylum.

A series of drastic measures were then taken by the regime of President Ben Ali aimed at discrediting and crushing Ennahda once and for all. In January 1991, the movement's deputy leader, Abdelfattah Mourou, fell victim to a government-sponsored defamation campaign that brought an end to his career. In February of that same year, an arson attack on the ruling party's offices in the Bab Souika district, allegedly carried out by Ennahda members, was seized upon by the government as proof of the violent and anti-democratic nature of the movement. Hundreds of its officials and activists ended up serving long-term prison sentences.

Nearly twenty years later, at around 12:25 on 30 January 2011, a British Airways flight landed in Tunis-Carthage International Airport; on board were scores of Ennahda exiles, including Rachid Ghannouchi. Their homecoming was the immediate outcome of what was once described as Tunisia's Jasmin Revolution, the first dynamic in the Arab Spring, which saw the downfall of Ben Ali and ushered in the era of democratisation. Like their ideological brethren in other Islamic movements in the region, Ennahda leaders were – to a large extent – taken by surprise. Nothing could have prepared them for this sudden upheaval. Unexpectedly, they found themselves not only in the driving seat of the vehicle of change from autocracy to democracy but also at the forefront of the struggle against a brewing counter-revolution. Although the spark that ignited the great Arab uprising of 2011 started in Tunisia, the country has done well to evade the catastrophic impact of the counter-revolution that brought democracy to an abrupt end in Egypt and ignited civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

The wisdom, or perhaps the pragmatism, of the leaders of the Tunisian Islamic movement, Ennahda, certainly played a significant role in saving the country from a similar fate. Seeing what had befallen Egypt, Ghannouchi steered the movement away from imminent disaster by taking several steps backwards and offering significant concessions that saw Ennahda, despite its overwhelming popular support, take a back seat and surrender power to what many saw as remnants of the ancien régime.

This provided an opportunity for the movement's leaders to rethink and reconsider their position; the political wind blowing over the region was definitely not in their favour. Regional and international powers found encouragement in the fall of democracy in Egypt to tighten the noose around Islamic political movements— what has become fashionable to call "political Islam" — which in the Arab world is comprised mainly of the Muslim Brotherhood and organisations that subscribe to the same school of thought, such as Ennahda in Tunisia.

Islamic political movements are known for their endeavour to re-establish Islam as a way of life in Muslim societies by adopting gradual reform at all levels. They believe that parliamentary democracy is compatible with the values of Islam and is the means to empowering the people and protecting human rights and liberties following many decades of authoritarian and oppressive rule.

In essence, therefore, Ennahda may have its roots in Islamic da'wah but this is political in nature because politics and government, it believes, are integral parts of Islam.

However, the days that preceded Ennahda's Tenth Conference on 20 May this year saw reports that the movement was embarking on a historic overhaul. Weeks beforehand, a number of its leading figures started making public statements reported by local and international media about the inclination within the movement to separate the da'awi (missionary) from the siyasi (political). While intriguing, this did not at first sound too extraordinary, at least not in terms of a division of labour.

Islamic movements have for at least two decades been struggling with this notion. Experimentation with political semi-liberalisation in a number of Arab countries as early as the mid-1980s exposed Islamic movements to the challenges of public political life. The first round of engagement with politics saw the participation of public figures within these movements. These were generally individuals who were known and respected, and where else would you find them other than in the pulpits of mosques? It did not take long to observe that these orators, preachers and scholars were not trained, qualified or suited for parliamentary politics, despite their Islamic knowledge and talent for public speaking.

This is where the idea of division of labour originated. However, media interpretations of some of the remarks made by Ennahda officials and members prior to the conference seemed to hint at something else.

I was invited to attend the tenth conference in Tunisia, and assumed that it would be an opportunity to learn directly from the movement's leaders what was meant by the project to separate the missionary from the political; the political from the social; and – as some said – the political from the religious. All of these terms were used on different occasions to describe the process upon which the Ennahda leadership seemed determined to embark once it was approved by the conference.

Scores of foreign dignitaries were also invited to the gathering, including Islamic political thinkers and representatives of some of the similar Islamic movements from Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Malaysia and Turkey. However, there were no representatives from the main Middle East Muslim Brotherhood organisations in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

Confident that I understood what Ennahda was aiming to achieve, just before arriving in Tunisia I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

"People have wandered right and left in a bid to interpret the separation of the political from the missionary that Ennahda in Tunisia is said to be preparing to embark on. The truth is that the matter is much simpler and more straightforward than some people have considered it to be. Such separation has been practiced for quite some time within Islamic circles without much fuss. It has, anyway, become a requirement stipulated by the laws and constitutions of many modern states.

"What this separation means precisely is that whoever is selected from among the members of Ennahda movement and tasked with engaging the sphere of political action should specialise in this field and should not involve himself or herself in the spheres of social activity because by doing so he or she would be burdening them and incurring harm upon them. Conversely, whoever chooses to engage in the spheres of social activity should not assume political office as this would restrict him or her and burden his or her institution.

"As a matter of principle, this idea is reasonable and even prudent. However, putting it into practice necessitates the provision of a set of important factors on top of which comes commitment, integrity, sincerity, devotion and perfecting the job one chooses to do. The biggest hindrance to the success of this idea can only come from within our own selves as it is our human nature to always aspire for more gains anywhere and out of every situation. Such an approach should have nothing whatsoever to do with separating the religious from the political or with a separation between religion and the state. Nor does it have anything to do with what some have insinuated, namely that the movement is seeking to distance itself from a particular intellectual path or a specific school of thought."

This was what I thought I understood from the speech delivered at the opening of its 10th Conference by Ennahda's leader Shaikh Rachid Ghannouchi.

However, the blog soon attracted disturbing comments that made me doubt my own understanding of what Ennahda was about to do. It turned out that a number of my old friends, whom I had known for twenty years during their exile in London, had been making statements to Tunisian and international media explaining that Ennahda's project was about much more than just a division of labour.

Lutfi Zeitoun and Rafik Abdessalam were both quoted as stating unequivocally that Ennahda wanted to distance itself from "political Islam" which, incidentally, is a term that was neither coined nor chosen by the people or groups engaged in political activity out of their conviction that Islam is about faith, Shari'ah (law), politics and ethics, and is a comprehensive way of life. Some press reports quoted these two prominent figures within the Tunisian movement as disowning the Muslim Brotherhood and seeking to absolve themselves of its perceived sins or staying as far away from it as possible, as if it were some sort of deadly virus. They went even further and denied that Ennahda had at any time been an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, a claim which they know as well as I do is entirely bogus.

Since the revolution, Tunisia has been going through exceptionally difficult circumstances, the more so since Ennahda emerged as the leading political party in the country. The difficulties have increased in the wake of the vicious campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide since the toppling of Egypt's democratically-elected president in July 2013. As such, it was understandable for Ennahda's leaders to endeavour to protect their project and minimise the losses that the movement was likely to incur as a result of the aborted Arab revolutions and the military coup that ended democracy in Egypt. It is understandable too that they would seek to establish political alliances with the aim of protecting Tunisia from the same fate as Egypt, Syria and other countries which fell victim to the counter-revolutionary campaigns waged by the enemies of democracy and humanity locally, regionally and internationally. The adoption of extraordinary measures and organisational repositioning would be perfectly understandable in the circumstances.

It was, though, still truly shocking and impossible to understand the keenness by some Ennahda officials to disown the Muslim Brotherhood, the members of which worldwide had stood by them in their predicament and supported them when they were going through their darkest days.

Furthermore, Ennahda's leaders could have adopted their new approach and defended their decisions without rubbing salt into the wounds of those who are languishing behind bars or have been forced into exile by the coup authorities in Egypt. What we have seen is clearly not a question of choosing a new approach in order to adapt to new conditions; rather, it is an attempt to send reassuring messages to various stake holders that Ennahda is not a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate; that it is not eager to rule Tunisia even via the ballot box; that it is exclusively Tunisian and nothing else; and that it is as secular as any other political entity in the country's political landscape.

The declaration by Ennahda that it was becoming a purely political party that engages in no missionary (or religious) activities while remaining silent about the body or entity that would be expected to do such a job or undertake such a responsibility aroused the curiosity of many observers. The movement's tenth conference in May was supposed to be an opportunity to answer people's questions about this and explain to them how the new Tunisian model is expected to function. However, no such opportunity arose due to the preoccupation of Ennahda leaders with their own internal affairs.

Many questions remain unanswered weeks after the historic declaration. This Islamic movement came into existence originally as a mission for reform, enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil and calling for what is righteous. It says now that it has decided to transform itself into a purely political party, though it is true that engagement in politics can be one of the important means of enjoining the good, forbidding the evil and calling to the righteous. Where is, however, or which is, the entity that will be entrusted with the task of missionary or da'wah work calling people to righteousness and reform? If such an entity were to exist, under whose authority will it be? Who will supervise it, guide it and reap the fruits of its work in society? Will the purely political Ennahda Party be allowed, or have the means, to benefit from its achievements, if any?

The Ennahda leaders assume that civil society will assume the da'wah mission by itself. To what degree has civil society in Tunisia been able to develop within the few years since the end of authoritarian rule? Has democracy in Tunisia been developed to sufficient levels as to provide civil society with protection against the encroachment of the state?

Mosques and schools are the most important institutions where da'wah can best be practiced, but who will be in charge of these institutions? If mosques are still under the control of the Awqaf and Religious Affairs Ministry, then civil society will have no access, and if schools are regulated strictly by the Ministry of Education, who will dare try to access them in order to preach or teach extracurricular subjects? Is it at all reasonable to assume that individual preachers or scholars or educators may be able to practice da'wah when they are not part of an organisation or some structure that is capable of coordinating efforts and channelling products so as to fulfil the requirements of social reform?

Perhaps a more reasonable strategy would have been for the Ennahda leadership to keep the movement as an Islamic da'wah project and create a separate political party, which would become the medium for the political activities of its members or followers. Only time will tell whether transforming the movement into a purely political body will prove to be practical and prudent. It will be very interesting to see how the movement's two top leaders, who happen to be scholars and Islamic thinkers, will look to have relinquished every missionary activity to dedicate themselves to politics and nothing but politics.

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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