How Islamists Can Save Tunisia's Revolution

Al-Nahda's political campaign has Western observers and Tunisian liberals worried, but the Islamist group, for all its faults, could help heal a rift that has troubled Tunisia since its independence, and has been at the heart of the country's autocracy and instability

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Al-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi speaks at a news conference in Tunis / Reuters

Six months after protesters ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali from power, sparking a chain of uprisings that have already changed the whole of the Arab world, the revolution is at an impasse. Elections, originally scheduled for this past Sunday, have been delayed until late October. Political parties are struggling to organize. The economy has stalled, half a million Libyan refugees have burdened the already strained social services, and the transitional government is struggling to exert basic control.

Al-Nahda, the country's Islamist political party, appears to also be one of the best prepared for the upcoming elections. Liberals and secular activists, many of whom led the revolution, fear that Islamists will ultimately come out on top, rolling back one of the most progressive countries in the Arab region. But what would al-Nahda political participation, and even its electoral success, really mean for Tunisia? To try and understand, we must start at the country's founding.

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The Democracy ReportIn January 1956, two months before Tunisia broke away from France, independence leader Habib Bourghiba met with the country's monarch, Amin Bey, to discuss the upcoming elections. During their meeting, Bourghiba convinced the bey, whom he would depose the next year, to change the election laws. Under his new plan, voters would choose between parties rather than individual candidates; whichever party won the majority in any given district would control that district's seat. The seemingly esoteric change meant that Burghiba's Neo Dustur party, widely popular for leading the country toward independence, would have a better chance at winning more seats. Most importantly, it allowed the party to select who would fill any seats it won. That meant that Bourghiba could keep fellow independence leader Salah ben Yusuf -- who, though enormously popular in Tunisia, had recently been pushed out of his position as secretary-general of Neo Dustur -- and his allies out of the government.

Neo Dustur went on to win every seat in the national assembly. Supporters of Ben Yusuf protested with an abstention campaign. In Tunis, 41 percent of voters abstained; in Jerba, 71 percent.

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Salah ben Yusuf / Wikimedia

Bourghiba and ben Yusuf represented two distinct visions of Tunisia, and though the common purpose of independence had brought them together, the business of defining and leading Tunisia drove them apart. In the years after Bourghiba returned from exile in 1949 to rejoin ben Yusuf in Tunisia, "the tensions between the two men were real -- on the personal level, with regard to tactics, and in terms of their increasingly divergent global orientations (ben Yusuf to the Arab and Islamic worlds, Bourghiba to the West)," Kenneth Perkins writes in his history of Tunisia, "and they eyed each other warily."

As with so many political battles, the tension between the two men was often personal, often petty, but it also reflected a tension between the two visions of the nation they represented. Ben Yusuf, a populist and a devout Muslim who led the fellagha peasant fighters, stood for a Tunisia that was Muslim and Arab. Bourghiba, pro-Western and secular, personified the Tunisian aspirations to a European-style state. The rift between Bourghiba and ben Yusuf would ultimately become a rift between the two verions of Tunisia they represented. That divide has never healed, the contradiction never reconciled, though it has been a source of tension and instability in the country ever since. Though the January 2011 revolution neither addressed nor solved the divided Tunisian identity, it may have created an opportunity to -- provided that secular Tunisians, not to mention the Western powers guiding the country's transition, can get over their long-held fear of Islamist politics.

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The conflict between Tunisia's opposing founders lasted only a few years. Bourghiba became president in 1957 and, by 1961, ben Yusuf was assassinated. But Bourghiba's struggle against the Tunisian identity ben Yusuf represented never ended. As early as 1956, Bourghiba "was already amassing [power] to impose state control over certain aspects of religion," Perkins writes. "The choice of these reforms and the speed with which they proceeded revealed Bourghiba's eagerness to assert the dominance of his interpretations, not those of his rival, over the Tunisian body politic."

It was a battle Bourghiba never won, though he surely tried. He could ban Islamist groups, but never the role of Islam in Tunisian identity; he could stifle political opposition, but never that part of Tunisianness he so opposed, and which was so at odds with his rule.

Ultimately, Bourghiba's futile battle against Tunisian identity led to his undoing. In 1987, security forces arrested Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Movement of the Islamic Tendency (MTI), along with other leaders of the Islamist opposition group. When several bombs went off in tourist hotels that following summer, the courts sentenced Ghannouchi and other MTI leaders to death. Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine ben Ali warned that executing Ghannouchi would make him a martyr, dangerously strengthen the Islamist opposition, and risk a national uprising. Bourghiba agreed, but later changed his mind, reaffirming the executions. But before the decision could be carried out, ben Ali marched into the presidential palace with a team of physicians, which declared Bourghiba medically unfit to govern. In November, Ben Ali claimed the presidency, which he held until his own ouster in January 2011.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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