How Egypt’s coup really affected Tunisia’s Islamists

By Monica Marks, University of Oxford

*This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” workshop, January 23, 2015. 

Conventional wisdom in academic and policy circles asserts that Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, compromised only after, and as a direct result of, the July 2013 coup that deposed Egypt’s then-President Mohamed Morsi. The assumption often accompanying that Egypt-centric projection presumes Ennahda would have necessarily adopted a Muslim Brotherhood-style maximalist approach had Islamists won a numerical majority in Tunisia’s 2011 elections. Both propositions dismiss critical specificities of the Tunisian scenario, including Ennahda’s historically long-term logic, the importance of domestic anti-Islamist pressure from leftists, secularists and groups associated with the former regime, and the extent to which Ennahda ceded key compromises well in advance of formally handing power to Mehdi Jomaa’s caretaker government on Jan. 28, 2014. Rather than fundamentally altering Ennahda’s overall strategy, the coup that toppled Morsi and subsequent crackdown on Brotherhood-oriented groups reinforced pre-existing postures of pragmatism and gradualism inside Ennahda that have been crucial to its survival in Tunisian society.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which took a majoritarian approach to power in the wake of Egypt’s revolution, Ennahda adopted a number of farsighted, participation-oriented positions that evinced a much thicker understanding of democratic politics. In early 2011, for example, when Tunisia’s transitional body, known colloquially as the Ben Achour Commission, began debating what type of electoral system Tunisia would have, Ennahda’s leadership contributed to creating the conditions for coalition-building and their own electoral marginalization – by supporting a proportional representation (PR) over a Westminster-style first past the post (FPTP) system. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, who experienced FPTP elections first hand during his 22 years of exile in London, correctly predicted that deploying this system in Tunisia would result in a coalition and democracy-inhibiting landslide victory for Ennahda. Political scientist Alfred Stepan has written as well that a Westminster-style FPTP system would have resulted in Ennahda sweeping approximately 90 percent of seats in the October 2011 elections, instead of the nearly 40 percent plurality it won. Ghannouchi and other Ennahda leaders instead supported a PR system that benefitted smaller parties, reducing Ennahda’s own share of votes in the 2011 election by a staggering 50 percent. Continue reading on the Monkey Cage.

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