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
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.
In 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.