How Islamists Can Save Tunisia's Revolution

Ben Ali, in the first few years of his rule, did attempt to reconcile the divide that Bourghiba had left in Tunisian society. He freed thousands of political prisoners, including Ghannouchi; pledged a more pluralistic political culture; scheduled the first free elections for 1989; and, understanding the importance of identity in Tunisia, led the drafting of a National Pact that declared Tunisia as Muslim and Arab. The MTI, eager to join ben Ali in forging a new Tunisian future, changed its name to Hizb al-Nahda, the party of renaissance. Al-Nahda was by far the most successful opposition party in the 1989 elections, even though it was still not legally recognized. Independent candidates fielded by al-Nahda won 15 percent of the national vote (the next two parties won 3.8 and 0.7 percent), bringing hope both that Tunisia might democratize and that the heirs of ben Yusuf might finally play a role in the country that their predecessors had helped found.

That hope ended in 1991, shortly after the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Ghannouchi and other Tunisian Islamists marched against the war, which they saw as a repeat of the Western colonialism that had so plagued Arad lands. The U.S. and European powers panicked at the wave of pro-Saddam demonstrations spreading across the Arab world, dropped their pressure on Arab leaders to democratize, and looked the other way when such leaders -- especially ben Ali -- promptly took the opportunity to crack down. Just as Bourghiba had gone after the parties and social forces loyal to ben Yusuf, ben Ali suppressed their cultural heirs. By 1992, 279 al-Nahda leaders stood trial; many received life sentences. Over the next two decades, ben Ali built one of the most oppressive police states in a region full of police states, holding power through a combination of sustained economic growth and the near-total dismantling of any opposition, Islamist or not. Ghannouchi, who had fled to France in 1988, remained there through ben Ali's reign.

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The January 2011 Tunisian revolution does not appear to have had much to do with the country's divided identity. Islamists, whether al-Nahda or not, appeared to play little formal or informal role. If anything, it was an uprising within the liberal, secular segment of society that Bourghiba had led. The protesters appeared driven by the belief that ben Ali, Bourghiba's ideological heir, had reneged on his implicit pact with Tunisians, in which the country gave up basic political freedoms in exchange for a relatively progressive society and strong, middle class-dominated economy. Ben Ali, after all, had used an iron fist for nearly 20 years; it was only once the economy sank, nepotism became pervasive, and both he and the police were viewed as corrupt that Tunisians rose up.


Habib Bourghiba, 1952 / Wikimedia

Still, the divided Tunisian identity remains. Al-Nahda has had by far the most success at political organizing in revolutionary Tunisia. According to a July 14 Economist article, "Virtually every opinion poll puts Nahda, the main Islamist party, in the lead." Most recently, it polled at 14 percent, which sounds modest until you hear that the runner-up, a liberal party, won five percent.

It's not hard to see why: the group's endurance of high-profile crackdowns and its 20 years in exile earned it a legitimacy that new political parties lack. Tunisia's nascent political scene is so fragmented that a little name recognition goes a long way. There are about 50 national parties in Tunisia today, mostly new. For comparison, the U.S. population is 30 times that of Tunisia. If our number of political parties per capita were the same, the U.S. would have 1,500.

Still, there is something more at play. Christopher Alexander, a Tunisia specialist who directs the international studies program at Davidson College, wrote at, "Many people [in Tunisia], and not just Islamists, believe that Tunisian politics has been dominated since independence by a privileged caste of Francophone elites, educated in European or European-style institutions, whose lives do not look very much like the lives of the majority of the population."

Long after Bourghiba's ouster, his vision of the Tunisian identity remains as oppressively dominant as ever. The difference is that now, finally, the other side of the Tunisian coin, the identity first personified by Salah ben Yusuf, could have its say. Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia 16 days after ben Ali left it, is not Salah ben Yusuf, but he represents that same, long-suffering, long-repressed part of Tunisia. "The dictator has gone, but the dictatorship remains," he told the crowd that had gathered to meet his return. "Only God can bring life from death. And we cannot bring a democratic system out of a corrupt dictatorial system."

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Al-Nahda's dilemma is not ideological. The group seems to have decided to operate under the assumption that Tunisia is a relatively liberal, secular country, and that al-Nahda's best path forward is to reintroduce an Islamic identity that has long been suppressed. As Tunisian activist Rajaa Basly wrote in the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reforms Bulletin:

Al-Nahda entered the new era with a flexible political discourse, seeking to turn over a new page and provide reassurance that it is committed to the values of democracy, human rights, non-violence, and the personal status code, which bans polygamy and provides for gender equality. Le Temps reported on February 6, 2011 that Ghannouchi stated that the personal status code is derived from sharia (Islamic law), polygamy has been determined to be illegal, the hijab (headscarf) is a personal choice, and stoning and amputation cannot be carried out as punishments.

The dilemma facing al-Nahda is over participation. Should they really lend their legitimacy to a post-revolution transitional government that can seem, at times, just as dominated by secular, coastal, liberal elites as were the governments of Bourghiba and ben Ali? The group has oscillated between participating in and standing outside the transitional process. At first, it refused to participate in any interim government, instead joining the "Committee to Defend the Revolution," a group of opposition parties that demanded to be recognized as the interim Parliament, was rejected, and mostly turned its efforts to protesting.

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

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