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Ennahda’s Shifting Role in Tunisia’s Transition

Adam Gallagher

A founding member of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist movement, says the people and parties must come together to advance their democracy.

Fresh off a busy election season, Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli is in the process of forming Tunisia’s next government. That government will have the daunting task of addressing Tunisians’ deep disenchantment with the political class and its failures to live up to the promise of the 2010-2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “The big problems confronting Tunisians have not been given enough importance” from the country’s political parties, said Abdelfattah Mourou, the first presidential candidate of the Ennahda party, during an interview at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Abdelfattah Mourou

Abdelfattah Mourou at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Nov. 26, 2019.

Image removed.

Speaking through a translator, Mourou said that after winning the parliamentary elections, Ennahda was seeking to form a government of national accord to address Tunisia’s challenges, including corruption; high unemployment, particularly among educated youth; economic mismanagement; and a lack of public trust in the public institutions.

Despite these challenges and citizens’ dissatisfaction with their government, the elections were an important milestone for the country. “These elections indicate that Tunisia’s transition cannot be undone,” Mourou said. “The country has succeeded in consolidating democracy and making it irreversible,” said Zied Ladhari, Ennahda’s secretary general, in an interview with the Washington Post.

Nonetheless, Tunisia’s transition still faces much unfinished business.

The Next Phase: Focusing on the Economy

Many of the economic challenges that plague Tunisia are a product of sequencing. Back in 2011, those leading the transition decided to focus on reforming the country’s political system—including drafting a new, progressive constitution; holding elections; and establishing political institutions.

But, “Doing so has left the economy moribund—and the country with a broken social contract,” said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As Yerkes points out, there’s no way to tell if that was the proper course of action: “[T]rying to fix the economy before taking on the challenge of political reform could have backfired, too.”

This year’s elections were widely seen as a rejection of the political class, in large part due to its failure to deliver on the bread and butter issues many Tunisians remain most concerned about. “Today, parties must understand that their priorities should be social and economic reforms that have been forgotten in the last five years,” said Mourou, who came in third with 13 percent of the vote in the first-round presidential election and did not reach the threshold for the runoff.

Mourou said that the election to the presidency of Kaïs Saïed, a political newcomer with no party affiliation, was a clear message that Tunisians were ready for change. Tunisians “elected a law man [Saïed is a constitutional law professor] with clean hands who is not tied by political baggage,” Mourou said. Ennahda, Mourou added, disagreed with Saïed’s proposals to make fundamental changes to the constitution. But, he noted that his party was ready and willing to work with Saïed for the betterment of Tunisia’s democracy.

He blamed political parties for focusing on their own narrow interests to the detriment of the people. But at the same time, Mourou cautioned Tunisians to not expect quick fixes to such vexing problems. He called on citizens to step up their own engagement with these issues and said that parties should bring the people in to decision making processes. “The public must be engaged to solve these problems,” said Mourou.

When it comes to tackling corruption, Mourou said that the next government should prioritize administrative, fiscal, monetary and institutional reform. “If we want to fight corruption, we need to do these four reforms,” he said, adding, “It will cost us money, time and effort. But it is all necessary and we must start on it.”

Ennahda’s Evolution

Mourou, who currently serves as Ennahda’s vice president, also touched on the party’s evolution. Founded in 1981, the Ennahda movement was long self-described as a “Muslim Democratic” movement that focused on helping the destitute and oppressed. It was suppressed during the Ben Ali years, but since his ouster has become one of Tunisia’s leading political forces, winning all three of the country’s post-uprising legislative elections.
After serving in the ruling coalition from 2014-2019, the party saw its share of the vote drop from 27 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in 2019. For Mourou, Ennahda’s declining share of the vote reflects Tunisians’ broader disenchantment with the political establishment. He pointed to the fact that nearly one-third of the new parliament is made up of independents.

In the middle of the 2010s, Ennahda made the watershed move to turn away from its religious roots and focus on politics. “We would like to promote a new Ennahda, to renew our movement and to put it into the political sphere, outside any involvement with religion. Before the revolution we were hiding in mosques, trade unions, [and] charities, because real political activity was forbidden. But now we can be political actors openly,” said Rachid Ghannouchi, a co-founder of the movement and the new speaker of the parliament, at the party’s Tenth General Congress in May 2016.

It was ultimately a pragmatic decision to move away from the movement’s religious focus, as both secular and Islamist parties had to make concessions and come to a consensus to draft the 2014 constitution. Pragmatic as it may have been, Mourou said it was just part of the natural evolution of any political party. “The party now has a platform based on values that work for the benefit of Tunisia … it remains a political party that does not speak in the name of Islam because it does not have a monopoly on Islam,” Mourou said.

When asked if Ennahda’s declining share of the vote was due to its decision to move away from its religious background, Mourou said: “We do not care about popularity compared to how much we care about respecting the law and our own internal convictions … If this has caused us to lose popularity, we will account for this, but it will not change our convictions.”

But it is clear that Ennahda has lost support among its traditional base and questions linger over just exactly what the party stands for. “De-emphasizing proselytism, allying with a regime it once opposed, and investing in electoral politics have all exacerbated the confusion about Ennahda’s identity,” wrote the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Hamza Meddeb.

Reflecting on Ennahda’s evolution, Mourou joked, “Everything changed in the party, except for three things: its name, its president [Ghannouchi], and my clothes.” (He was wearing traditional Tunisian garb.)

Ennahda has played a major role in the country’s transition and now will now piece together a ruling coalition that must address a deeply disaffected citizenry, a withering social contract and a lackluster economy. But building that coalition will not be easy. “The makeup of this parliament brings disparate political currents, values, and visions for the country,” wrote USIP Tunisia Country Manager Leo Siebert. “Forming a majority coalition is only the first challenge. Next will be governing.”

In the end, Ennahda must broker consensus on how to address these issues, working with both those in and out of government, to move the country toward achieving the kind of democracy and dignity Tunisians demanded a decade ago.

This article was first published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which partners with the Wilson Center on "The Islamists."

Adam Gallagher is the managing editor for Public Affairs and Communications at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

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