Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ennahda chooses ‘Tunisiafication’

The Tunisian Ennahda Movement may be shedding its Islamist political credentials, reports Kamel Abdallah in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Tunisian Ennahda Movement held its 10th general congress from 20 to 22 May, attended by the country’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, and thousands of the movement’s members. The congress marked a turning point in the history of the Tunisian Islamist movement, as it focussed on separating Ennahda’s preaching and outreach work from politic.

Such moves are an attempt by the movement to distance itself from political Islam, according to observers. Political Islam has faced major difficulties throughout the Arab region, especially after the series of popular uprisings, dubbed the Arab Spring, that began in Tunisia and later spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria in 2011.

The decision by Ennahda, led by veteran politician Rached Ghannouchi, to distance itself from political Islam can also be seen as an attempt to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the movement is affiliated, amid growing indications that other Islamist movements may also be prepared to follow Ennahda’s path of reassessment and political development.

The Ennahda congress saw the re-election of Ghannouchi as president by a wide margin of 800 votes, compared to the 229 gained by Fathi Al-Ayadi, head of the movement’s Shura Council, and 29 by movement figure Mohamed Al-Akrout. One hundred of the movement’s members were elected to its Shura Council, the Ennahda executive authority.

On the second day of the congress, delegates approved the movement’s bylaws and resolutions by a comfortable majority. The resolution separating the movement’s outreach work from its political activity was approved by a 90 per cent margin, according to official spokesman Osama Al-Saghir.

“The Ennahda ship must carry everyone,” said Ghannouchi at a press conference during the congress. “Tunisia must be big enough for all its children.” He pledged to make “all possible efforts for reform” and said that Ennahda will become a movement “working exclusively in politics, leaving preaching activities to civic associations”.

The decision to sever the two activities raised questions about how serious the movement was about carrying out the step. It also sparked questions about the ramifications of the decision for politics in Tunisia, its regional impact, and the willingness of Ennahda supporters from around the country to accept such major shifts, according to observers.

Tunisian researcher Abdel-Haqq Al-Zamouri said the congress was important for the future of the movement and the political, social and security situation in the country. He noted that it had come at a time of extremely complex political, social and economic conditions in Tunisia, with sharp polarisation on questions of identity and a wide gap between the elite and the population as a whole.

At the same time, deteriorating economic conditions pose numerous challenges to Tunisian decision-makers, as do regional and international divisions over the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The Arabs are split on these matters as a whole, and there is no regional consensus on the issue of foreign intervention in the countries of the Arab Spring.

Al-Zamouri said that the terrain on which Ennahda has been operating became “increasingly complex” as a result of the movement’s inability over the past five years to resolve pressing organisational, political and doctrinal matters. He attributed this to Ennahda’s involvement in managing transitional issues, either as a leader in government or as an important participant.

The decision to split the movement’s activities raises questions about the identity of the largest Islamist movement in Tunisia. Some wonder if it signals a shift or evolution in the identity of Ennahda, which is coming under pressure to redefine its relationship to its peers in other states, most significantly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was listed as a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities two years ago.

Al-Zamouri said the decisions made at the congress signal a major shift in the movement’s identity from “Brotherhoodification” to “Tunisiafication”. He said the decision reflects the political bets being made by the movement’s leadership to change its image on various fronts, both with its own base and with other domestic political actors and the international community.

He added that the Islamist movement’s decision is part of a broader debate in Tunisia over Ennahda’s intellectual and doctrinal identity.

Tunisian journalist Mongi Bakir said the decision indicates a “qualitative leap” in the movement’s political activity, but said the group appears to be veering towards a meeting with the opposition because the decision is “a denial of the establishment literature and the movement’s martyrs”. Bakir said this could mean divisions in the ranks of one of the biggest political entities in Tunisia, or possibly even a schism.

However, Ennahda’s talk of severing its politics from its outreach work has also been met with suspicion, with some wondering whether the decision grows out of real conviction or is an attempt to adjust to developments in the country. It could be a way of evading the major missteps of the Islamist movement after it assumed power in Tunisia following the Arab Spring, according to some commentators.

Fathi Al-Ayadi, the head of Ennahda’s Shura Council, speaking at a press conference, said that the movement is seeking to pursue a reformist course towards “functional specialisation”. He added that it wants “to be a civil and democratic political party grounded in its Islamic identity”. This did not mean the movement will abandon its Islamic identity and ideas, he said.

However, Bakir said that the separation of political action from preaching is tantamount to “an implicit recognition” by Ennahda of the need to move in this direction. He saw the move as part of an attempt to adapt to quickly shifting developments on the political scene, adding that Ghannouchi is “distinguished by his sharp intelligence and a political savvy that may have no peer in the Tunisian political landscape or even the Arab and regional one”.

Journalist Jamel Arfaoui said that Ennahda’s transformation into a civil political party could mean that the movement “has fully absorbed the regional changes and what happened to the Brotherhood in Egypt. It has understood that there is no future for political Islam” in Tunisia.

He said the move is the “result of a rational reading of what is happening in the region in general and a way of maintaining its status as a major player on the scene”. It indicated Ennahda’s success in refashioning the image of Islamists abroad, but wondered whether the movement will be able to persuade Tunisians that the changes are real, given the wider public’s mistrust of the movement.

According to Arfaoui, the next major test for Ennahda will be the municipal elections to be held in March 2017.

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