While it is too soon to tell whether the Jasmine Revolution will yield a thriving democracy, the Tunisian case offers a chance to examine the relationship between Islam and democracy in the context of actual governance rather than on a purely theoretical level. So what does Ennahdha’s governance in the past nine months suggest about the emerging contours of an Islamic democracy in Tunisia?
Despite Ennahdha’s plurality in the NCA, the party has been constrained by three major political factors as it attempts to lay the foundations of an Islamic democracy: secular opposition parties in the NCA and their allies among non-governmental organizations; increasingly vocal Salafist movements; and internal divisions between moderate and conservative members of the party.
The protests of 2011 revolved around secular themes of unemployment, corruption, and unfair labor practices—and since Ben ‘Ali’s departure, Tunisia has witnessed an explosion in the number of registered secular parties and civil society organizations. Secularists in the NCA and their counterparts in civil society have been especially vocal in their opposition to Ennahdha’s proposed reforms in four areas: the relationship between religion and state in the new constitution; free speech; women’s rights; and the choice of a parliamentary or presidential system.
Religion and State
Shortly after the NCA was constituted in November, a debate broke out over whether to make Islamic law (Sharia) the basis of Tunisia’s new constitution. …Faced with the prospect of the Troika collapsing and growing secular demands that Ennahdha abide by its self-proclaimed “moderation,” the party leadership calculated that the costs of pushing for Sharia at this stage were too great.
Ennahdha’s retreat [on Sharia] was a victory for the secularists, but in other instances the fragmentation plaguing the secular parties has undermined their effectiveness in going up against Ennahdha. The Islamist party’s recent decision to qualify free speech in pushing for a blasphemy ban is exemplary in this regard.
Recently, a group of Ennahdha MPs proposed a bill that would criminalize “insults, profanity, derision, and representation of Allah and Muhammad” and punish violations of “sacred values” with prison terms and fines.
Even as secular Tunisians expressed disdain for the idea, neither the non-Islamist parties in the NCA nor like-minded civil society groups managed to mobilize resources sufficient to block the proposal. Both the CPR and Ettakatol have splintered since joining the Troika, and the non-Nahdha parties in the NCA have been unable to coalesce around an alternative vision of political reform in Tunisia.
Following the June riots, Ennahdha and its secular partners were lambasted in the Tunisian press for what many perceived to be the state’s inability to preserve law and order. But as infighting continued to plague the secular opposition parties, Ennahdha went on to host nearly 2,000 members at its 9th party congress, the first held on Tunisian soil. The contrast between thousands of Ennahdha activists gathered in one place and a crisis-ridden secular opposition was striking, and Ennahdha emerged from the congress emboldened enough to persist in its plans to criminalize offenses against sacred values.
Ennahdha has advocated positions on women’s personal freedoms that have drawn harsh criticism from feminist groups and from secular Tunisians generally. Although Ennahdha has pledged to uphold the country’s Personal Status Code,13 which defines men and women as equal citizens, outlaws polygamy and grants women equal rights in divorce, adoption, and other personal matters, members of the party have also proposed laws that would chip away at the gains made possible by the Code. Last November, for example, Souad Abderrahim, a female Ennahdha MP, stated that Tunisian laws should not protect single mothers and argued that a 1998 law protecting children born to single mothers should be eliminated.
More recently, a constitutional subcommittee of the NCA released the draft chapter on Rights and Liberties, in which women are defined as “complementary to” rather than “equal to” men.
The outcry generated by the draft language on complementarity both inside and outside the NCA suggests that secular forces may prove more adept at countering Ennahdha with respect to women’s rights than they have been on the issue of free speech.
Parliamentary or Presidential System?
A final point of contention between Ennahdha and the secular parties as they debate a new constitution has been over whether to adopt a parliamentary or presidential system. Ennahdha would prefer a parliamentary model with a weak presidency, contending that a strong legislature with most executive power reserved for a cabinet of ministers would offer the best protection against the concentration of power in a single, potentially authoritarian president who might escape legislative oversight.
Ennahdha stands to gain from a parliamentary system in which it can continue to share the responsibility of governing, especially given that many of the grievances driving the revolution (such as high unemployment and regional economic disparities) remain unresolved, and the party knows it will be judged by how well it tackles these challenges. For their part, the secular parties seem to be assuming that a strong presidency could serve them well in the short term, given the strength of the Islamist bloc in Parliament.
The dispute is over whether to place executive power in a council of ministers chosen by, and accountable to, representatives in Parliament or in a president elected by the citizenry. Either way, the resulting system would be democratic, and separation of powers would remain intact (assuming a separate and independent judiciary).
The Salafist phenomenon in Tunisia encompasses formally recognized political parties like Jabhat al-Islah (The Reform Front) and Hizb al-Tahrir (Party of Freedom); social movements like Ansar al-Shari‘a (Supporters of the Sharia) that refuse to participate in the political process; and violent vigilante groups self-identifying as Salafists. Unofficial estimates of the Salafist presence in Tunisia have ranged from 6,000 to 100,000 citizens, and there are unconfirmed reports that Salafists have taken control of more than two hundred mosques throughout the country.
The Salafist phenomenon in Tunisia has presented a challenge to Ennahdha on two fronts: the debate over Article 1, and the broader question of political participation in Tunisia’s emerging democracy.
Ideological Divisions within Ennahdha
Ennahdha has sought to portray itself as a unified party, and compared with its secular counterparts, it has unquestionably exhibited greater discipline, better organization, and superior resources. But divisions within Ennahdha have begun to appear and could carry major implications for the party’s integrity moving forward. Disagreements have surfaced, for example, over the issues of political participation and the relationship between religious and secular law. Although the moderate strands of the party have won key debates in the past nine months, there are signs that the conservative branch of the party may be ascendant.
A straw poll of Ennahdha members in Parliament revealed that a majority supported inserting Sharia into the constitution. But when the party’s top political council held an internal vote on the proposal, only 12 out of 80 participating members—roughly 15 percent—voted to amend Article 1, pointing to serious divisions between the party leadership and its members serving in Parliament.
Such divisions are a liability for the party, which might explain why the opening lines of the recent party congress’s final declaration, as well as statements by Ennahdha members at press conferences that followed, asserted that the party remains unified around its “moderate” and “centrist” character. However, the results of the congress’s votes for party leadership and key concessions to the conservative wing in the final declaration belie such claims.
Though the movement re-elected [Rachid] Ghannouchi (above) as president, just over one-quarter of the party’s membership did not vote for him. Hearings at the congress were closed to outside observers, but reports later emerged of heated debates between an older, less confrontational generation of members molded by the experiences of exile and imprisonment and a younger, more conservative trend in the party insisting on a hard line toward the secular parties and greater cooperation with Salafist parties.
Toward an Illiberal Democracy?
In confronting the three main political factors outlined above, Ennahdha has repeatedly stressed that it remains committed to a democratic regime based on Islamic principles, and that such a regime is compatible with protections for basic individual liberties. The first claim finds ample support in the first nine months of Ennahdha’s governance. With respect to such democratic practices as broad participation in elections and office holding and the separation of powers, Ennahdha has demonstrated a solid commitment. But the movement’s efforts to restrict free speech and circumscribe women’s individual rights on religious grounds belie the second claim—that Ennahdha’s variant of an Islamic democracy is consistent with a regime based on individual rights. Where tensions between the two values emerge, Ennahdha would prioritize building a society in which public life is guided by a collective, religious identity over the protection of individual freedoms that might conflict with such an identity.
The contrast between Ennahdha’s advocacy of women’s equal participation as citizens in the political arena and its efforts to limit women’s rights as individuals partly reflects divisions within the party—but it also suggests that the group believes it can adhere to democratic practices even as it pushes for decidedly illiberal reforms outside the political realm.
As Tunisia continues to debate a new constitution and begins to prepare for legislative elections in the spring of 2013, Ennahdha will continue to face the combined political pressures of a secular opposition, a rising Salafist presence, and destabilizing strains between moderate and conservative voices within the movement—to say nothing of the economic challenges of unemployment, poverty, and regional disparities, which, though not addressed in this Brief, will surely influence the outcome of the next elections. How Ennahdha responds to these pressures will determine the degree to which it succeeds in redefining the relationship between religion and state in Tunisia. If a democracy does take root in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, then the first nine months of Ennahdha’s governance suggest that the contours of this democracy will be shaped both by the party’s vision of a religiously inspired political system and by the political context in which these self-described Islamist democrats navigate their transition from underground entity to major political actor.
laws that would chip away at the gains made possible by the Code. Last November, for example, Souad Abderrahim, a female Ennahdha MP, stated that Tunisian laws should not protect single mothers and argued that a 1998 law protecting children born to single mothers should be eliminated.
That Ennahdha has scored well on several important indicators of democracy while at the same time undermining individual rights raises an important question. A central debate among observers of Arab politics in the last several decades has revolved around whether Islamists would be democratic if given the chance to govern. But Ennahdha’s tenure thus far suggests that a more appropriate question may be: What kind of democracy will Islamist governments embrace? The example of Ennahdha’s position on women’s rights is instructive.
This is an extract from a longer analysis for Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies: RTWT