Did Egypt’s coup teach Ennahda to cede power?

By Monica Marks, University of Oxford

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa,” held June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany

On January 28, 2014, just two days after signing Tunisia’s new constitution into law, Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh handed power to a caretaker government of unelected technocrats. It was a symbolic moment, as Laarayedh – a leading member of Tunisia’s center right Islamist party, Ennahda, who was imprisoned and badly tortured before the revolution – abdicated power on behalf of the Ennahda-led coalition that won Tunisia’s first free and fair elections in October 2011.

Watching from afar, some observers read Ennahda’s decision to abdicate power – following months of political crisis, negotiation, and pressure from opposition parties and civil society groups – as a classic example of political learning, a bi-product of the July 3, 2013 coup that toppled Ennahda’s cousin party in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and sent its leaders back into jail. In this reading, Tunisia’s Ennahda – presumed to have followed a stubbornly hegemonic approach before Egypt’s coup – was essentially spooked into ceding power by the undemocratic ouster and subsequent re-imprisonment of co-Islamists in Egypt. Some observers suggested Ennahda’s abdication represented a mere strategic adaptation; others thought Ennahda may have internalized the lessons of Egypt more deeply. Yet they shared the assumption that Egypt’s coup – rather than lessons gleaned from Ennahda’s own history and political context – triggered its abdication.

So did Ennahda cede power in January 2014 because it had “learned” from Egypt’s July 2013 coup? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that although Ennahda didn’t abdicate because of the coup (it was more compelled by its own historical experiences, the example of Algeria in 1990-1991, and domestic pressure from political opponents and civil society activists), that doesn’t mean the coup didn’t matter. In fact, Ennahda watched the Egypt coup closely and felt its impact deeply. Instead of learning new lessons from the Brotherhood’s ouster, though, the coup reinforced old lessons, increasing the degree of confidence Ennahda invested in survivalism, gradualism, and long-term oriented pragmatism as strategically advantageous approaches.[1]

The importance of history and Ennahda’s own experience

Ennahda wasn’t learning new lessons from the Egypt coup. In fact, the coup represented a story Ennahda’s leaders had heard many times before – of electorally triumphant Islamists beaten back by authoritarian establishments, often with the West’s tepid blessing. In fact, Ennahda had found itself as the credulous Islamist protagonist in one of the first editions of that story: Tunisia’s 1989 elections, when the country’s now-deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali reneged on promises to initiate a democratic opening. Ennahda fielded independent candidates in the 1989 elections, optimistic this opening, or so-called changement, was on its way. But before the election could be completed, Ben Ali – startled by the Islamists’ strong showing – did an abrupt about-face, using the candidates’ names to single out and imprison party supporters.[2]

Many nahdawis (Ennahda members) fled for exile, mostly to Western European countries. Thousands more remained in Tunisia, where many were jailed as political prisoners during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Ben Ali regime also subjected Ennahda members and their families to various forms of human rights abuse, such as blacklisting them from employment and educational opportunities, requiring them to register at police stations up to five times per day – a practice that greatly interfered with working, studying, and otherwise leading a normal life – and police harassment that sometimes involved sexual abuse, rape, and torture for both men and women.[3]

Over the coming years Ennahda leaders thought hard about how they should have handled the 1989 elections and surrounding events. Which represented the wisest path vis-à-vis the Ben Ali regime: accommodation or confrontation? Ennahda leaders’ opinions were divided on this question throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s. Yet one thing most of the leadership agreed on was that nahdawis needed to be shrewd and long-term in their thinking – strategic minimalists willing to go gradually rather than overeager maximalists who overplay their political hand.
Another touchstone moment that shaped Ennahda leaders gradualist approach was the experience of neighboring Algeria following its 1990 and 1991 elections. The Islamic Salvation Front’s (FIS) dominance in those elections spooked Algeria’s existing military regime, which responded by cancelling elections and cracking down on Islamists. Algeria’s experience and the bloody, decade-long civil war that ensued powerfully impacted Ennahda’s thinking during the 1990s and 2000s. Survival, Ennahda leaders surmised, meant stepping slowly and strategically, careful to reassure vested interests and society at large it had no intentions of seizing the levers of state to impose a radical majoritarian version of Islamism.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) failed to internalize the lessons of Algeria. The Brotherhood, to be fair, was dealt a difficult hand: squeezed by Egypt’s judiciary and elements of its military apparatus, its electoral success did not translate into clear control of the political system. Yet the FJP failed to play the cards it did have wisely. Instead of stepping slowly and strategically through the complex entanglement that was Egyptian transitional politics, the FJP opted to double down in its attempts to assert authority. As in Algeria, powerful demonstrations of Islamist force fueled opposition rhetoric, providing just the window Egypt’s military needed to resume full control of the political system. In Tunisia, however, Ennahda leaders practiced more restraint.

Regularly referencing the experience of FIS in Algeria, Ennahda leaders remained sensitive to suspicions that Islamists would instrumentalize electoral victory as a means towards illiberal, majoritarian dominance. Ennahda therefore adopted a more minimalist approach and, unlike the Brotherhood, stayed true to its pre-election promises of supporting coalition governments and not running or officially endorsing presidential candidates in 2011 and again in 2014. Drawing on lessons it had learned from its own experiences and from Algeria’s history, Ennahda leaders expressed frustration with the Brotherhood before its ouster. “In Egypt the Ikhwan made the worst decision,” said Osama Essaghir, an Ennahda MP and member of the party’s 150-member Shura Council.[4] “They decided to govern alone.”

One president, all alone with the powers… That was very unwise. The day after [Brotherhood member Mohamed] Morsi won the [presidential] election, Sheikh Rached [Ghannouchi] flew to Egypt for one reason, just to tell Morsi one thing: do not govern alone.[5]

The importance of chronology

The coup in Egypt didn’t “teach” Ennahda to cede power. Rather, Ennahda’s willingness to strike canny, survivalist compromises – an approach that came to dominate Ennahda’s strategic orientation after the revolution – had its origins in lessons party leaders started internalizing decades earlier. Getting the chronology correct is an essential first step to determine how and whether learning has occurred. In this case, Ennahda’s decision to abdicate power in January 2014 was preceded by a string of experiences that reinforced the value of compromise to party leaders.

Participation in cross-ideological opposition talks throughout the 2000s positively reinforced that dialogue and compromise were effective steps toward achieving the longer-term goal of weakening Ben Ali’s regime. Parties to opposition talks in Aix-en-Provence (2003) and Rome (2005), for example, included secular and Islamist activists, human rights groups, and political actors. Together, they forged a shared understanding of the democratic principles Tunisia’s polity should affirm. These principles included commitments to an inclusive political system that would work to realize equality (musawa) between men and women, and in which popular sovereignty (sayadet al-shaab) would constitute the sole source of legitimacy. These talks dovetailed with the formation of a cross-ideological opposition movement, the October 18 Collective, which helped weaken and delegitimize Ben Ali’s rule.[6]

Meanwhile in England, an exiled Rached Ghannouchi was laying intellectual underpinnings of Ennahda’s compromise-centric approach. Some of the lessons Ghannouchi learned in England bore immediate fruit following his return to Tunisia. Months before Tunisia’s October 2011 elections, for example, Ghhanouchi correctly predicted that employing a Westminster style first past the post system (FPTP) would result in a coalition and democracy-inhibiting landslide victory for Ennahda. Instead, he and other Ennahda leaders supported a proportional representation (PR) system most beneficial to smaller parties. This reduced Ennahda’s own share of votes in the 2011 election by a staggering 50 percent. Had Ennahda’s leaders successfully advocated an FPTP system, the party would have won approximately 90 percent of votes as opposed to 40 percent – an outcome party leaders feared would have spooked secularists and old regime forces, repeating a Tunisia 1989 or Algeria 1991-style scenario likely to jeopardize Ennahda’s survival and Tunisia’s entire democratic transition.[7]

Other core compromise-centric positions were taken before Egypt’s coup. Months before Tunisia’s October 2011 election, Ennahda vowed that, even if it won an outright majority, it would govern in an inclusive coalition – an arrangement party leaders explained would help stabilize Tunisia at a fragile time of transition. Ennahda won a plurality rather than a majority in the 2011 election and was therefore structurally obliged to go into coalition, but its pre-electoral statements about the importance of compromise evinced a much deeper understanding of democratic politics than the Egyptian Brotherhood’s.

Similarly, chronology demonstrates that the bulk of Ennahda’s constitutional compromises had been worked out in fall 2012 and spring 2013, months before the June 2013 coup in Egypt. Indeed, compromises on core issues – such as omitting any reference to sharia, defining men and women as equal rather than complementary, and omitting language that would have criminalized blasphemy – were already written into the third draft of Tunisia’s constitution, released in April 2013.[8]

The drafting process itself proved an important experience of learning for Ennahda, as the party struggled – for the very first time – not just to govern, but also to somehow translate its abstractly Islamist aims into concrete constitutional language. Along the way, leftist and secularly oriented segments of Tunisian society – demographics that are much larger in Tunisia than in Egypt, Algeria and many other Arab countries – taught Ennahda valuable lessons about the importance of consensual support. Determined and vocal pushback from such citizens – backed by well-networked Tunisian civil society groups – resulted in a series of street protests and media critiques against Ennahda. At critical junctures when more maximalist elements of the party reared up, civil society appeared to batten them back behind the parapet.

In its opposition, civil society often found itself in frequent alliance with an anti-Islamist coalition of leftists, trade unionists, and old regime elites. This constellation of soft and hard-power anti-Islamist actors narrowed Ennahda’s margin of maneuver, further impressing upon party leaders the importance of canny compromise to long-term survival.

Intense pushback from local, Tunisian critics – including media, civil society groups, the labor union (UGTT) and old regime elites – during 2012 and early 2013 often served to remind Ennahda that minimalist pragmatism, with a heavy helping of consensus and compromise-making, offered the path of least resistance.

 Updating as learning

Though Ennahda didn’t learn new lessons from the Egypt coup, it still learned – albeit in the academic sense. The definition of political learning used most commonly by academics describes learning as “a change of beliefs (or the degree of confidence in one’s beliefs) or the development of new beliefs, skills, or procedures as a result of observation and interpretation of experience.”[9] Ennahda learned from the coup according to the first part of that definition, not the second. In other words, the experience of Egypt’s coup updated rather than created Ennahda’s existing posture of pragmatism, because it reinforced most Ennahda leaders’ confidence that pragmatic gradualism represented the wisest approach.

To be sure, the coup and its aftermath – especially the massacre at Rab’a Adawiya in Cairo, which killed approximately one thousand people, most of them Brotherhood supporters, in August 2013 – sickened and scared Ennahda members and party leaders. Despite having often acknowledged the Brotherhood’s mistakes in power, nahdawis felt its mistakes merited neither the coup nor the crackdown. Some said Rab’a stood as a gut-churning reminder of the oppression they and their families experienced under Ben Ali. A huge number of nahdawis at every level of the party changed their Twitter and Facebook photos to the yellow Rab’a symbol. Some began wearing yellow Rab’a pins and stickers to demonstrate their solidarity with victims.

There may well have been a form of emotional learning in which strongly felt visceral reactions_– fear, sympathy, disgust ­– made Ennahda’s base more willing to accept previously unthinkable political compromises. The most powerful example here is Ennahda’s ultimate decision – much opposed by the party’s base – to vote down an electoral lustration law that would have banned former members of Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) from contesting Tunisia’s 2014 elections. The law, tabled by CPR in 2012, was debated off and on before finally being voted down – amidst much pushback from large swathes of the base and many Ennahda MPs – in accordance with the wishes of Ennahda’s central executive leadership, including party president Rached Ghannouchi.

It is likely that learning from the Egypt coup, much of it powerfully emotional, played a role in shaping nahdawis’ ultimate compromise on the lustration law – a proposal party leaders feared would have created a strong constituency for a coup in Tunisia. Other sources of learning, though – such as the spectacular failure of Libya’s attempted lustration law historical lessons drawn from Ennahda’s and Algeria’s experiences – were likely more powerful influences on party leaders, however, and also factored into base-level nadhawis’ views on lustration legislation.

Yet overall the emotions following Rab’a reaffirmed Ennahda’s existing approach to governance that rested on canny compromise and a malleable message of cultural conservatism. The coup in Egypt had a powerful demonstration effect – one that, while not new to Ennahda given its own experiences and the example of Algeria, reinforced and offered new justification for Ennahda’s pragmatic compromise-centric approach.

It is therefore ahistorical to characterize Ennahda’s compromises, particularly its decision to formally relinquish power in January 2014, as mere byproducts of Egypt’s 2013 coup. Ennahda’s logic of long termism and track record of cross-ideological compromise indicate that its leadership’s operative logics have been crucially different than the Brotherhood’s. A series of experiences, both before and after Tunisia’s revolution, taught Ennahda the value of canny compromise and malleable conservatism. These tendencies manifest in Ennahda’s historical negotiations and internal evolution, as well as the key compromises it made after the 2011 elections. Rather than teaching Ennahda to compromise, or spooking it into ceding power, Egypt’s 2013 coup justified – with dramatic demonstration effect – lessons Ennahda had already learned, reinforcing pre-existing postures of pragmatism and gradualism that have been crucial to Ennahda’s survival in Tunisian society.


[1] See Monica Marks, “Tunisia’s Ennahda: Rethinking Islamism in the context of ISIS and the Egyptian coup,” Brookings Rethinking Political Islam Series, forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2016

[2] See Larbi Sadiki, Political Liberalization in Bin Ali’s Tunisia: Facade Democracy, Democratization, 2002; Emma Murphy, Economic and Political Change in Tunisia: from Bourguiba to Ben Ali, Palgrave, 1999.

[3] Author interviews, 2011-2016. See also Doris Gray, Islamist & Secular Quests for Women’s Rights, Mediterranean Politics 17:3, 2012 and Tunisia reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)

[4] The 150-member Shura Council is the highest regularly sitting body in Ennahda. It is intended to be a representative institution in which the party debates and decides positions on important issues via a one person, one vote scheme.

[5] Osama Essaghir in discussion with author, March 20, 2013.

[6] See Monica Marks, “Purists vs. Pluralists: Cross-Ideological Coalition Building in Tunisia,” in Alfred Stepan, ed. Tunisia’s Democratic Transition in Comparative Perspective, Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2016.

[7] Author interviews, 2011-2016. See also Alfred Stepan, “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations,” Journal of Democracy, April 2012 and John M. Carey, “Why Tunisia Remains the Arab Spring’s Best Bet,” conference presentation at Dartmouth College, September 9-11, 2013 accessible at http://sites.dartmouth.edu/jcarey/files/2013/08/Tunisia-Carey-Aug_2013.pdf

[8] See Draft Constitution of the Tunisian Republic, April 22 2013, International IDEA translation accessible at http://constitutionaltransitions.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Tunisia-third-draft-Constitution-22-April-2013.pdf

[9] See Jack S. Levy, “Learning and foreign policy: sweeping a conceptual minefield,” International Organization 48:2, 1994