Tunisia’s Muslim Democrats

Supporters of the Ennahda party for the opening of the 10th Congress of the Movement on May 20.

By: Wall Street Journal

Political Islam has inspired jihadists across the world, but there are glimmers of hope within the house of Islam. One of them is Tunisia’s moderate Ennahda party, which this week set out to sever its Islamist roots and remake itself as a strictly civic political entity.

A party conference in Tunis over the weekend ratified the change. Ennahda (“Awakening”) will separate its politics from its religious and social activities, which will be carried out by independent civil-society organizations. In other words, Ennahda will no longer be a movement but a normal party within the democratic system that arose after Tunisians overthrew the regime of Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011.

“We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam,” Ennahda’s founder and leader, Rached Ghannouchi, told France’s Le Monde newspaper. “We are Muslim democrats.” This is notable, given Ennahda’s origins as a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot.

It’s also in keeping with the conciliatory posture struck by Ennahda since the Arab Spring. The party agreed to omit references to Shariah law in the new Tunisian constitution ratified in 2014. The party didn’t field a candidate in 2014’s presidential election so as not to polarize the country.

Ennahda’s internal transformation is partly a tactical response to the rise of Islamic State, which has rendered the “Islamist” label more toxic. Municipal elections will be held next year, and presidential elections in 2019. It’s also a sign of the resilience of Tunisia’s newborn democracy. That success is built on a consensus between the secular and the pious that is all too rare in the Arab world.
One challenge for Ennahda will be to define what a “Muslim democrat” is. Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, a senior Ennahda member and Mr. Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, told us the party will remain grounded in broadly Islamic values while giving “answers to the needs of society” in areas such as economic development and counterterrorism. Tunisia’s jobless rate is above 15%, according to the World Bank, and the country is the world’s top exporter of recruits for Islamic State.

There are reasons for caution. Mr. Ghannouchi used to sound more radical notes, though his thinking appears to have evolved over decades of political experience. Some inside the party’s base will balk at shedding their Islamist identity, and the 74-year-old Mr. Ghannouchi must take more steps to institutionalize the transformation. Success would solidify Tunisia’s status as a beacon in the Arab world.

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