The reported killing of a secular Tunisian labor activist by supporters of the ruling Ennahda party has raised political tensions and concerns about the illiberal drift of the country’s transition as the country approaches the anniversary of its first free and fair elections.
Lotfi Naguedh, a union activist and supporter of the secular Nida Touns party was reportedly beaten to death by demonstrators from the Ennahda-linked League for the Protection of the Revolution, Reuters reports. Opposition leader and former premier Beji Caid Essebsi today described the killing as the “first political assassination since the revolution.”
The incident follows leaked conversations between ultra-conservative Salafists and Ennahda’s founder and spiritual leader Rachid Ghannouchi (left) in which he raised the possibility of an alcohol ban and the imposition of Shariah. The revelations have raised fears the party may not be as moderate as it claims.
“Secularists still control the economy, the media and the administration … the army and police also is not guaranteed,” Ghannouchi told Salafi leaders, during which he counseled patience about securing more radical Islamist policies.
“Now we have not just a few mosques, we have the Ministry of Religious Affairs … I invite you to do what you can with religious lessons and launch radio, television and schools,” he said.
Islamists should focus on delivering social welfare to build up a political base and take heed of the lesson from neighboring Algeria, where a military coup stopped radical Islamists assuming power in 1992.
“Do you think that what we achieved cannot be taken away from us? This is what we thought when we were Algeria in the 90s,” he said. “We thought that Algeria had reached the goal and there was no turning back. It turns out we misjudged the situation and we went backwards. The mosques went back under the control of the secularists and Islamists were persecuted.”
“Islamists should use the popular associations, establish Koranic schools everywhere and appeal for more religious preachers because people are still ignorant of Islam,” Ghannouchi said.
The leaked video, whose authenticity Ghannouchi accepts, “seems to have revealed a side of the leader that many have feared all along,” writes Mohamed-Salah Omri, a lecturer in Modern Arabic at the University of Oxford.
“It has been used to show how the Salafis were part of Ennahda’s strategy, and to suggest that the two movements agree on the ultimate goal of the re-Islamicisation of the people and the institutions, such as the army, the police and the media,” he writes.
Ennahda and its coalition partners this week boycotted a ‘national dialogue’ conference held at the initiative of the initiative of the General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) in an attempt to defuse growing political animosities.
“We thought that a force would emerge and launch an initiative that would reduce those tensions and bring the protagonists to the negotiating table,” said UGTT secretary general Houcine Abessi.
“They want to return to the days when there was only one way to report and only one way to think,” said one of several journalists undertaking a hunger strike to draw attention to the threat.
One of Ennahda’s own coalition partners believes that ideological convergence is leading the party to accommodate the militant Salafists.
“It’s much more difficult for Ennahda than it is for us, since its right wing has very similar views to those of the Salafists,” says Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki. “The only difference is that they try to push their reactionary interests through in a non-violent way.”
“There’s a crisis, a split in the Islamic movement which is often overlooked by the secular forces: the decisive confrontation today is not between the secularists and the Islamists but between moderate Islamists, who are the large majority, and the Islamist extremists.”
But a senior Ennahda official said simply demonstrates Ghannouchi’s attempt to persuade Salafists to eschew violence and engage with the political process. “We have to make sure that the whole Salafi trend isn’t pushed into the lap of al-Qaida. We have to isolate the violent elements,” Said Ferjani told The Associated Press. “He is trying to convince them that the soft approach, the moderate approach, is the best one.”
The revelation “feels to me like a very standard piece of tactical political combat in Tunisia, this practice of using video tapes to impugn people’s reputations and mine their credibility,” said Chris Alexander, a Tunisia expert at North Carolina’s Davidson College. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they had leaked it with the purpose of embarrassing Ghannouchi.”
Even if the video was leaked and edited, “it still raises questions about Ghannouchi’s vision of Islam and Tunisian democracy,” writes analyst Tam Hussein. “Underpinning Ennahda’s integrationist strategy is its leaders’ belief that political inclusion and Islamic education provide the best means for neutralizing the potential violence of jihadi Salafism,” writes Monica Marks, a Tunisia analyst at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College:
Ennahda leaders tend to view the country’s jihadi Salafis as wayward children—younger, more confused versions of themselves who never had the chance to be properly educated in a more cerebral form of “Tunisian Islam,” which they generally describe as moderate, tolerant, and inclusive. Cracking down on young Salafis or demonizing them will, in Ennahda’s view, only serve to further marginalize and isolate them.
“By pacifying and pandering to the right, however, [Ennahda] may be playing to a pipe dream—desperately trying to shore up popularity and religious credentials with a group of Salafis who already view the movement as impious, unprincipled, and American-influenced,” Marks writes in the Carnegie Endowment’s Sada journal:
Many young jihadi-Salafis already resent the paternalistic attitude, accusing the party of talking down to them. Ennahda may be better advised to stake its claim on center-right territory and redouble its efforts to improve the economy and apply the rule of law equally to prosecute all those guilty of criminal acts. Such a path could redynamize the party as a representative, principled force against impunity in Tunisian politics and strengthen the critically important issues of transparency and rule of law.
The dispute should also be seen in the wider context of Islamists’ evolving efforts to reconcile Islam and democracy, writes Hussein:
A recent Chatham House paper, Identities and Islamisms in the GCC, reminds us that Islamists are not monolithic entities and have diverse political visions. Their visions are products of modernity and historical events and the decline of Muslim hegemony. The slow decline of the Ottoman Empire caused a great deal of soul searching amongst Muslim thinkers especially with regards to its relationship to democracy. Many thinkers like Rifa’ah Tahtawi, Khairuddin Tunsi, Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammed Abduh and Rashid Ridda did not view democracy as antithetical to Islam rather they viewed European liberal democracy as something positive. Consequently, by the 20th century a body of political thought emerged that believed that Islam had the equivalent of constitution, voting, pluralism and consensus. Many influential Muslim thinkers like Abdur Rahman Azzam and Bennabi were comfortable with the label Islamic democracy. Islamist parties like Ennahda drew heavily on this current of thought and believed that democracy was compatible with their political outlook. These sort of Islamists viewed democracy as a political mechanism for removing despotism and encouraging civil society. It was not a complete system tied to a political ideology.