How Islamists Can Save Tunisia's Revolution

Al-Nahda's political campaign has Western observers and Tunisian liberals worried, but the Islamist group could help heal a rift that has troubled Tunisia since its independence

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.


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.

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.

Al-Nahda then lobbied to participate in the most powerful of the three "committees" overseeing the transitional process. That committee was renamed the "High Commission for the Achievement of the Revolution Objectives, Political Reform, and Transition to Democracy," this time with representation al-Nahda. Then, in late May, the group quit the committee over negotiations on the single biggest issue facing transitional Tunisia: when to hold elections. Al-Nahda wanted elections soon, while their polling edge is still strong. But others on the committee, knowing their own parties still needed time to organize, wanted them delayed. Not long after al-Nahda quit, the elections scheduled for July 24 were postponed to October.

The episode is a microcosm of the larger dilemma with which al-Nahda is grappling. Twenty years of opposition has made them the most popular political party in Tunisia. Participating in what is sure to be a messy process (as democracy always is) risks compromising their hard-won credibility. It also gives them partial ownership over an unpredictable transitional government that could implode overnight and over a moment in Tunisian history that is politically and economically unstable. Al-Nahda doesn't want to miss out on their big shot at real political participation -- particularly if they can do well -- but they're wary about betting their future on a revolution that is far from assured.

Even if Tunisian democracy succeeds, participation is still risky for al-Nahda. There is an easy purity to playing the opposition, but leading requires making difficult decisions, which can divide an otherwise cohesive party. "Fragmentation is a real threat for al-Nahda," according to Basly, who says it is already "challenged by internal rifts." Founding member Abd al-Fattah Morou was recently forced out by the group's younger generation, for example, and has since pledged to start a new party to compete against his old one.

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Neither Islamism in general nor al-Nahda in particular appeared to have played any role in Tunisia's January 2011 revolution, but they had everything to do with the brutality and corruption that sparked it. Ben Ali was despised for a number of reasons, but two of those reasons were the ferocity of his secret police and the arbitrary nature of his rule. Before down-on-his-luck Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in protest, he had endured humiliation and harassment by the corrupt, untouchable police.

Ben Ali, like Bourghiba before him, was either unable or unwilling to recognize and accept the other half of the Tunisian identity, and so suppressed it wherever he found it. Maybe ben Ali truly hated the Yusufists and the Islamists as Bourghiba had (the elder ruler once appeared on television drinking orange juice in the middle of Ramadan). Maybe ben Ali wanted to engineer a Tunisian society that was more liberal, secular, and European than the one he found. Or maybe he simply feared that the other half of Tunisian society posed an inherent challenge to his rule.

Whatever the reasoning, both Bourghiba and ben Ali had consolidated tremendous control and coercive power they seemed to feel were essential to suppressing Tunisia's conservatives. But authoritarianism can be imprecise, and plenty of secular, liberal, or simply indifferent Tunisians got caught in the police state's path. Bouazizi wasn't an Islamist or an opposition activist, but he was a victim of the police state that had been designed to oppress them.

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Al-Nahda's great fear -- that the same class of secular liberals who have ruled Tunisia since independence will dominate the post-revolutionary government -- should also be Tunisia's great fear. It's not hard to see why al-Nahda is worried. Many of the secular, liberal activists who appear to have driven the revolution look to be seeking a Western-style secular, liberal democracy. The same goes for government officials and academics in the U.S. and Europe, which are shipping in aid money and technocratic assistance to cultivate the growth of democracy in a part of the world that has long suffered under autocracy.


Ben Yusuf and Bourghiba, 1955 / WikiMedia

For Westerners (or for coastal urban Tunisians long exposed to the West), this can seem like the natural, universal ideal. But a functioning democracy is about more than just institutions and transparent votes and independent judiciaries -- it's about a government that embodies the identity of the nation and meets the more needs of the people. That identity, whether we like it or not, is at times populist and Islamic; those needs include feeling connected to the government and, for many, public recognition of Islam.

Tunisia's pre-revolutionary government, long considered one of the region's most stable, did, for most of its history, represent that part of society personified by Habib Bourghiba, even if it did so non-democratically. But it never represented the other half, a shortcoming it made up for by repressing that identity and by denying its social and cultural needs. Any Tunisian government that excludes Islamists, marginalizes them, or denies their needs, no matter how democratic it appears, will only perpetuate the contradictions and tensions that ultimately ended ben Ali's rule.

Ever since Bourghiba and ben Yusuf turned against one another in the years before they achieved independence, Tunisia has been divided. Its division has not been along any line as obvious as ethnicity, color, religion, or geography. But it has nevertheless proven existential. The January 2011 revolution finally provides an opportunity for the two sides of Tunisia to come together and resolve the two halves into a single Tunisian identity. Were al-Nahda and other Islamists to govern alongside the liberals and secularists, it would be more than just a fully representative government. It will be proof that Tunisia's two identities are not irreconcilable, that the country does not have to choose. If this day comes, Tunisia will have accomplished something truly revolutionary.