Islam and Islamists in the 2014 Tunisian elections

By Elizabeth L. Young, University of Michigan

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

While the Arab Spring protests were primarily framed around issues of economic inequality, dignity, and political inclusiveness, the role of Islam in political life has emerged as a central issue in the region leading to further political stability with the coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from government in Egypt and the Islamic State’s expansion and destabilization throughout the region, most recently in Libya. Tunisia, with the successful completion of not one, but three elections this past fall, has justifiably been held up as a model for democratic transition. However, we shouldn’t forget too quickly that Tunisia faced, albeit to a lesser extent, many of the same issues that undermined neighboring governments: attempts from non-Islamist political players to nullify Islamist electoral gains and increasing support for Salafi-jihadist, anti-state activities. By fall 2013, the exact path of Tunisia’s transition was in question with the assassination of two political opposition figures in six months, increasing terrorist activities, an attempt to remove Ennahda from government, and the constitution and electoral law still not written.

Given the political instabilities the country faced, the successful elections held last year are all the more impressive as political leaders worked to find a consensus to move Tunisia out of political deadlock. However, the electoral campaigns also revel an emerging consensus on how to address the role of political Islam in Tunisia. The press coverage leading up to the 2014 Tunisian presidential and parliamentary elections, framed the elections as competition between Islamists and secularists, an oversimplified binary that has been rightfully challenged. While broad societal divisions do indeed exist, the elections were notable for the degree to which there was a convergence of discourse on religion and politics with the Islamist Ennahda de-emphasizing its religious character and the “secular” Nidaa Tounes making a concerted effort to highlight its religious credentials during the electoral campaigns. Below I discuss the electoral campaign rhetoric as a move toward the normalization of religious discourse in Tunisia and basis on which the country will refocus on other central issues, most importantly the economy, regional disparities, and security.

Religion and the Political Landscape Prior to the 2014 Elections

While survey data indicates that Tunisian citizens are far more concerned with economic and security issues than with questions of religion and identity,[1] highly publicized conflicts involving the role of Islam in public life seemed to dominate the Tunisian landscape following the 2011 overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia faced the challenge of an increasingly diverse religious landscape. Following the Jasmine Revolution, prisoners, including Nahdawi Islamists and Salafis, were released and Tunisia faced an initially unregulated field of religious groups and discourses that had previously been banned. For several months the Ministry of Religious Affairs worked to replace many Imams, both those appointed by Ben Ali and Salafis who had gained control of mosques following the revolution. There were a number of public confrontations on the role of Islam in public life including what could be shown on television and whether the previously banned niqab, a headscarf that exposes only the eyes, could be worn in the classroom.

By summer 2013, many Tunisians had lost confidence in the Troika-government, a coalition of Ennahada and two secular parties, due to increasing economic issues, the protracted constitutional drafting period, and a belief that Ennahda was too soft on terrorism and the activities of the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia, which resulted in attacks on Tunisian security forces and the assassination of leftist political leader Chokri Belaid the previous February. The Tamrod protest movement and July 2013 coup in Egypt sparked organized demonstrations in Tunisia demanding that the government step down. In this already charged atmosphere, the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi on July 25, allegedly by Ansar al-Sharia, led to public demonstrations against the Troika-government, a parliamentary walk-out, and a five-month political deadlock. Only with the Troika’s agreement to step down from ministry positions, but not from elected parliamentary seats, was Tunisia able to finalize the constitution and pass the electoral law to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections.

The 2014 Election Campaign

Early on the legislative election was framed as a showdown between “Islamist” Ennahda and “secular” Nidaa Tounes, which ultimately won and 69 and 89 seats in the 217-seat parliament. However, despite the highly charged political environment that preceded the elections, each campaign to some extent rejected these labels and both parties tried to portray themselves as Islamic without necessarily being Islamist. While it is not a surprise that each party might seek to expand its level of support, the degree of overlap that emerged in their discourse is surprising.

Ennahda’s campaign focused on portraying the party as a responsible, consensus-oriented actor that shepherded the country through a difficult period of institutional change. For example, Ennahda’s political platform had no significant identifiably-Islamist element, with the exception of promoting the development of Islamic banking options.[2] Compared to the 2011 program, the 2014 program made subtler references to Tunisia’s Islamic heritage than its predecessor, which listed the importance of “Islam as a supreme reference point” in the platform.[3] This is not to indicate the religion or religious identity is less important to the party or its voters, but that Ennahda, unsurprisingly in the wake of both political tensions in Tunisia and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has focused on itself presenting itself as a mainstream political party rather than as an Islamist political party. In addition to this mainstreaming, the party affirmed both before and after the election its willingness to continue working with other parties, including Nidaa Tounes.

In contrast, Nidaa Tounes made concerted efforts to emphasize its Islamic credentials, and in particular Tunisian Islamic credentials, throughout the campaign. In contrast to Ennahda’s public program that deemphasized religion, Nidaa Tounes issued a 20-page platform on religious issues that critiqued the Troika’s actions, particularly the relationship between Ennahda and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and put forward its own platform. In its foreword, then-presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi drew a distinction between two opposing views on Islam. The first, represented by Nidaa Tounes, is “an authentic, national view based on ijtihad, renewal, and reform” is contrasted with a second view of Islam “based on tradition, inertia, violence, and terrorism,”[4] which the campaign associated with Salafi-jihadism that Ennahda failed to stem.

This discourse of Tunisian Islam as a particularly pluralistic and moderate practice has been utilized by multiple political actors ranging from former President Habib Bourguiba to members of Ennahda to Nidaa Tounes. During the election, Nidaa Tounes and Essebsi sought associate themselves with this tradition. Nidaa Tounes held a rally in front of the Uqba Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia’s most important religious site, and Essebsi made a highly publicized visit to an important Sufi saint’s tomb in Tunis where he received the endorsement of the brotherhood. Additionally, Essebsi presented himself publically as the political and ideological heir of Bourguiba, going so far as to launch his presidential bid at Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Monastir and to imitate Bourguiba’s dress and mannerisms throughout the campaign.

With this convergence in electoral rhetoric, the parliamentary campaigns focused primarily on issues of economic growth and security. This isn’t to say that fundamental issues on the role of Islam in public and political life don’t exist. They do. Nidaa Tounes was founded following the 2011 elections in direct opposition to Ennahda’s electoral victory. There are many constituents of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes that see the other party as an existential threat to Tunisia’s future, including Nidaa Tounes supporters who view Ennahda as responsible for past terrorist attacks and a danger to the country’s civil nature, and Ennahda supporters who see Nidaa Tounes as a continuation of the former dictatorships that jailed and exiled any dissidents.

These divisions have not been wiped away, instead, as evidenced by the political rhetoric during the electoral campaigns these issues are not as immediately pressing as economic and security issues. However, they can and will emerge at points of tension as evidenced during the presidential campaign. Discussion of Islam, became even less pronounced during the first-round of the presidential elections, in which Ennahda had decided not to field a candidate. However, in a radio interview immediately following the first, presidential round, Essebsi accused his competitor in the run-off, then-incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, of only making it to the second round due to the support of Islamists, Salafi-jihadists, and those prone to violence, a pointed criticism that Marzouki’s second place finish was a result of Ennahda supporters choosing to support him in the absence of an Islamist candidate. Essebsi’s comments sparked a wave of protests and rioting in southern Tunisia, where Marzouki and Ennahda had their largest bases of support.

Islam and Islamist Politics Following the 2014 Elections

Essebsi’s comments reveal an underlying tension over competing views of society that is unlikely to diminish in the immediate future. However, there are several signs that it is becoming a less important or explosive issue than it was in the period leading up to the elections. First, as mentioned previously, we can see this in the broad convergence of discourse that parties used surrounding the issue with both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes largely echoing each other on the centrality of a moderate, reformist, national Tunisian Islam to counter violent extremism. Rather than being monopolized by Islamists alone, this discourse is being normalized by major political actors who have shifted their attention to more immediately pressing public issues such as improving the economy and national security.

Second, Ennahda made the strategic choice to actively try to become part of a unity government and not to remain in the opposition. During the presidential elections, Ennahda, looking to play the long game, declined to support a presidential candidate, which left open the possibility of becoming party of the government, which it did in February, albeit with only one full ministerial portfolio. Additionally, in December, the newly elected Assembly of the People’s Representatives met for the first time and elected its leadership. Mohamed Nasri, the vice president of Nidaa Tounes, ran uncontested as speaker, and Abdelfattah Mourou of Ennahda was elected as deputy speaker with 137 of 217 votes, an outcome not possible without support of the other party.

However, Ennahda’s long-term vision of ensuring its future role in politics, particularly its willingness to participate in government with members of the former regime that persecuted the Ennahda, has alienated some of its base supporters who view the potential partnership as a portrayal of the party’s values. Additionally, during the elections numerous Ennahda supporters not only voted for Marzouki, but also mobilized to campaign for him and to act as candidate agents on election day. This experience could result in former Ennahda supporters being more willing or prepared to support a party other than Ennahda in future elections. Later this year Ennahda will hold its party congress and current leader Rachid Ghannouchi has hinted that he many not run again for party leadership, which could pave the way for significant changes within the party.

However, while religion seems to be deemphasized in the current political landscape, the elections revealed three other societal divisions that will be critical in addressing during the current political mandate. First, political actors must address the disenchantment of Tunisian youth with politics. Throughout the country observers noted that youth, the drivers of the revolution, voted in startlingly low numbers. Second, regionalism, more than religion, became the major societal divide during the presidential elections with the more economically-prosperous coastal and northern regions supporting Essebsi and the more economically marginalized south voting for Marzouki. Both campaigns emphasized the need to develop the interior regions and now must follow through. Third, the competition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda and between Essebsi and Marzouki highlighted the tensions between figures representing the old regime and revolutionary ideals. Even with these tensions, the current government must find solutions to address the pressing issues of economic development and especially terrorism as the Islamic State expands in Libya and as Tunisians who left to fight in Syria return to Tunisia.

Elizabeth L. Young is a PhD candidate in the sociology department at the University of Michigan. She received a POMEPS Travel-Research-Engagement (TRE) grant for summer 2014 to research Islam, secularism, and national identity in post-revolutionary Tunisia.


[1] International Republican Institute. 2014. Survey of Tunisian Public Opinion: June 22 – July 1, 2014.

[2] Ennahda. 2014. Ennahda Political Electoral Programme 2015-2020: A Rising Economy. A Secure Country.

[3] Ennahda. 2011. Ennahda Movement Programme: For Freedom, Justice and Development in Tunisia.

[4] 3, Nidaa Tounes. 2014. Nidaa Tounes’ Program on Religions Issues.


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