Monica Marks, University of Oxford

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Observers of Tunisian politics were stunned by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s snap resignation four years ago at the apogee of his party’s power in the post-revolutionary transition. Jebali, a leader of the center-right Ennahda party, resigned to defuse tensions after jihadist extremists gunned down Chokri Belaid, a leftist MP and sharp critic of Ennahda, outside his Tunis home.

The murder in broad daylight threw the transition into turmoil barely one year after Tunisia’s first democratically elected government had taken office. Despite the country’s history of brutal dictatorship – where regime opponents on the left and right were tortured, raped, exiled, and sometimes murdered – most Tunisians were unaccustomed to witnessing acts of political violence. Shock at the brittle young government’s inability or refusal to ensure security enraged Tunisians. Hundreds of thousands attended Belaid’s funeral, one of the largest outpourings of grief in Tunisian history.

The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the assassination. Yet many Tunisians, including prominent politicians and media moguls, accused Ennahda – a party with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired school of political Islamism. This accusation made intuitive sense: not only was Belaid a prominent critic of Ennahda, but for more than twenty years ex-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had banned the party – the country’s largest political formation – and portrayed it as a terrorist movement in state-controlled media.

Reasoning that Ennahda’s leadership in government had become a source of conflict in the country, Jebali resigned as prime minister on February 19, 2013 soon after Belaid’s assassination. His statesmanlike act of self-sacrifice temporarily cooled tensions but was initially criticized within Ennahda. Ceding such a critical post struck many leaders as unwise, given that the party had, just fourteen months earlier, overcome decades of repression to win victory in Tunisia’s first post-revolutionary elections. Handing over its rightfully won reins, they feared, could enable old regime forces intent on Ennahda’s destruction to rush in and reverse Tunisia’s democratic experiment.

Understanding this background is critical to grasping just how much the tables have turned in Tunisia since 2013. Today, Ennahda’s core leadership – comprised of party president Rached Ghannouchi, his advisors, and members of Ennahda’s executive and political bureaus – pursues a policy of what we might term unrestrained accommodationism or radical pragmatism. In the current governing coalition, party leadership consciously underplays Ennahda’s hand, taking a backseat to its partners, most notably the old-regime derived Nidaa Tunis, elements of which are adamantly anti-Islamist. And, interestingly, today it is Jebali who – more openly than any current or former Ennadha leader – criticizes this consensual approach.

During an interview at his Sousse home this January, Jebali – who said he completely left Ennahda on December 11, 2014 – spoke in no uncertain terms. “Ennahda isn’t ruling,” he said, “It’s being ruled.” Jebali’s critique echoed sentiments expressed by scores of base-level nahdaouis (Ennahda members) I have interviewed since Ennahda first joined coalition government with Nidaa Tunis in early 2015. Like them, Jebali believes Ennahda is behaving as a sort of self-emasculating giant: vastly underplaying a strong political hand, and thus enabling resurgent old regime forces to cement their grip on power.

Ennahda came in second place to Nidaa Tunis in Tunisia’s 2014 elections, but was older and far better organized. Nidaa – a disjointed quilt of political tendencies, knit together by anti-Islamism and fuelled by old regime money and manpower – formed in 2012 with the prime objective of defeating Ennahda in the 2014 elections. It succeeded, but has imploded spectacularly since. This is mainly because Tunisia’s president and the founder of Nidaa Tunis, Beji Caid Essebsi, has failed to restrain his son Hafedh – widely described, even within his party, as power-hungry with little of his father’s keen political instincts – from seizing power within the party.

Long-simmering tensions around succession in Nidaa boiled over in November 2015 when armed thugs hired by Hafedh physically prevented members of Nidaa’s executive committee from meeting at a hotel in Hammamet to discuss the party’s future. Soon thereafter, Mohsen Marzouk, who also sought to replace Beji Caid Essebsi as leader of Nidaa, created a new party, Hizb Machroua Tunis (The Tunisia Project Party), taking with him over thirty Nidaa MPs.

Nidaa has since managed to lure back some of its lost MPs, but still holds fewer seats in parliament than Ennahda: 64 seats to Ennahda’s 69. Yet, though Ennahda holds more parliamentary seats than any other party, Tunisia’s Nidaa-led coalition government granted it just three of twenty-six ministerial posts in a summer 2016 reshuffle. Token representation, Jebali says, for a party that boasts what is likely the largest, most loyal, and best-organized base in Tunisian politics.

Jebali blames Ennahda for under-utilizing its power, speculating that intense awareness of the transition’s reversibility – paired with fear of political marginalization – have made party leaders overly eager to embrace a naive consensus with old regime forces. He believes Egypt’s summer 2013 coup against democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member made accommodationism more attractive to party leaders. Cooperating more seriously with President Essebsi and other old regime elements under the supposedly neutral banner of consensus became, Jebali says, a kind of life preserver to Ennahda, shielding it from counter-revolutionary waves sweeping the region.

Jebali’s critique reflects the concerns of numerous base-level Ennadha members and pro-revolutionary Tunisians outside the party. Such individuals often struggle to understand why Ghannouchi and other Ennahda leaders have not opposed problematic pieces of Nidaa-supported legislation, such as a proposed economic reconciliation law that would give amnesty to corrupt businessmen. Why, they wonder, would a party so victimized by the cronyism of Ben Ali’s police state – a party whose base so strongly craves accountability for old regime abusers – appear to acquiesce and even support policies that entrench impunity?

Ghannouchi, his core circle of advisers, and other prominent voices in Ennahda’s leadership bodies are generally aware that perceived kowtowing to the ancien régime incenses the party’s base. Indeed, as party leaders will readily acknowledge, concessions on matters of revolutionary principle have created far more tumult within Ennahda than concessions on matters of religious principle.

By far the most controversial issue within Ennahda since the revolution, for instance, was Ghannouchi’s insistence that Ennahda MPs reject a lustration law that would have prohibited powerful officials in Ben Ali’s old party, the RCD, from contesting Tunisia’s 2014 elections. Beji Caid Essebsi owes his very presidency in part to Ghannouchi’s rare and dramatic trip to the parliamentary floor, where he urged Ennahda MPs to abstain from the lustration vote. Ultimately it failed by just one vote: that of a nahdaoui MP who, at the last minute, switched his vote in support of the law to a vote of abstention. The law – strongly supported by Ennahda’s base, the bulk of its Shura Council members, and many secular pro-revolutionary Tunisians across diverse political parties – generated decidedly more disaffection within Ennahda than nearly any other policy, including its Shura Council’s extraordinary decision not to include references to sharia in the new constitution.

Despite this awareness, appeasing their base is not Ennahda leaders’ main concern. The stakes for Tunisia’s transition as a whole, they claim, are simply far too high, and the country’s current transitional phase far too fragile, to prioritize short-term populism over savvy long-termism. Ennadha’s core leadership tends to describe the party’s self-preservational tactics in sacrificial terms. Whatever normalizes Ennahda, ensures its survival, and integrates it into the fabric of Tunisian political life, they argue, simultaneously helps preserve the continuation of Tunisia’s democratic transition itself – a transition that would, they say, evaporate without Ennahda’s presence as a stabilizing, responsible anchor. Moreover, Ennahda leaders believe the importance of Tunisia’s transition extends well beyond the country’s borders. By demonstrating to young people considering violent extremism that a place exists for democratic Islamism in regional politics, they argue, the transition offers huge potential dividends for security across the Middle East and North Africa.

However, Ennahda has paid a huge price for defending “statist logics” rather than “springing for populism,” stresses Said Ferjani, a member of Ennahda’s political bureau. Ferjani suggests that, like a watchful parent, Ennadha has selflessly guarded Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, aware of how vulnerable it truly is. “We’ve sacrificed a lot,” he says. “And we’re prepared to sacrifice more.” Nourredine Bhiri, an influential top-tier leader in Ennahda, echoes this view. “Maybe we have to sacrifice some votes. This may be the cost of pragmatism. But we’ll be prisoners of the past if we don’t move forward.”

Many leaders of Ennahda, including those well outside Ghannouchi’s circle, seem to have made radical pragmatism an article of political faith. Ennahda MP Naoufel El-Jemali, an independent who headed Ennahda’s Sidi Bouzid list in the 2014 elections, captured this sentiment: “We [in Ennahda] have learned that you must do politics with your head, not your heart. Do the opposite of what your heart tells you to do.” The contrast with cousin-like Islamist movements across the region, especially with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is stark. Whereas many in the Egyptian Brotherhood attribute its catastrophic failure to allying too closely with the military, thereby not sufficiently embracing revolutionary populism, Ennahda’s leadership sees cautious alliance building and suppression of revolutionary populism as keys to the long-term survival of both the party and Tunisia’s transition as a whole.

Yet, as Jebali’s critique highlights, Ennahda’s commitment to radical pragmatism brings serious political risks. Inside and outside Ennahda, Tunisians critique the “marriage of the two sheikhs,” i.e. the functional alliance between Rached Ghannouchi and President Beji Caid Essebsi, whom Ennahda persuaded to be the keynote speaker at its historic May 2016 congress. Tunisians increasingly view Ennahda and the RCD-ist core of Nidaa Tunis as linked in a cynical relationship of mutual self-preservation.

Outside Ennahda, many guess greed has motivated the party to hitch its wagon to Nidaa, which they suppose may be enriching Ennahda leaders with lucrative payoffs. Inside Ennahda, many members of the party’s base – especially individuals passionate about transitional justice – express disgust at party leadership for entering what they regard as a series of self-denigrating deals with the devil. Some struggle to identify the principles Ennahda now stands for. Although party leaders cast pragmatic accommodation in terms of magnanimous sacrifice, some supporters suspect their leaders’ perceived peace with old regime impunity is, at its heart, motivated by fear. “I feel like we’re cowering behind Beji,” confided Fatma, a 26 year-old Ennahda member. “Politics is tricky, I know that,” she said. “But I want my leaders to lead on what’s right.” Otherwise, she continued, “what’s the point of all those years in prison?”

Even those who accept accommodationism and alliance-building as politically necessary often express confusion and dismay that Ennahda leaders have gone so far in their support for Nidaa Tunis and certain Nidaa-led policies. Prominent Ennahda leader Rafik Abdessalem, for example, unapologetically stated on national radio that his father-in-law, Ennahda president Rached Ghannouchi, voted for Beji Caid Essebsi in the 2014 presidential election, striking many nahdaouis as unimaginably distasteful. Likewise, even some nahdaouis who accept the argument that Essebsi’s proposed economic reconciliation law would ultimately speed Tunisia’s economic recovery are perplexed that party leaders, including Ghannouchi and Bhiri, have publicly voiced their support rather than quietly negotiating behind closed doors.

At its tenth Congress in May 2016, Ennahda leaders compared the party’s evolution from Islamism to a “Muslim Democratic party” as natural. They framed Islamism as a situation-contingent liberation theology: a “language of opposition,” or political vocabulary that made sense under Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Now that Ennadha can compete freely and fairly in Tunisia’s nascent democracy, they said, the party must shift from a language of opposition to a language of governance, shaped more by responsible, long-term pragmatism than knee-jerk principle-driven pushback.

Ennahda surmised, probably correctly, that the old regime, grouped temporarily under the organizing shell of Nidaa Tunis, will represent the most powerful political interest group in Tunisia moving forward, with whom it must cooperate to block a potential alliance between the staunchly anti-Islamist UGTT labor union and old regime forces. Ennahda fears such an alliance could leave it dangerously isolated. Regardless of the logic behind it, the gusto with which Ghannouchi and his circle have embraced this cooperation risks leaving portions of the party’s base, and potential voters outside the party, disillusioned with the party’s perceived cynicism. Instead of using its seat at the political table to fight bravely for democratic reforms, critics imply, Ennahda is warming its seat – prioritizing selfish survival over the battle against old regime impunity.

In clinging to the life preserver of “consensus,” which critics see as a euphemistic byword for a relationship of symbiotic opportunism with Tunisia’s old regime, the party has – at least in the near future – tied its success to that of Nidaa Tunis and the current prime minister Youssef Chahed’s coalition government. Despite Ennahda’s tokenistic representation in this government, it is widely perceived as being close to Essebsi and will therefore share ample responsibility for the government’s successes or failures in the court of Tunisian public opinion.

Last January’s protests in Kasserine and this month’s protests in Kef and Tataouine – both driven by the socio-economic marginalization of Tunisia’s long-suffering interior – underscore that no post-revolutionary government has managed to substantially mitigate the grievances that provoked Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. Tunisia’s first local elections, scheduled for this December, will help gauge the real cost of Ennahda’s perceived partnership with Essebsi, the Chahed government, and elements of Tunisia’s old regime. The stakes are high and the socio-economic conditions are worsening. The ability of Tunisia’s government to deliver on revolutionary promises at the national – and, even more importantly, at the local – levels carries with it the fate of the Arab world’s best democratic experiment.

Monica Marks is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and research fellow with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France

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