Ennahda’s Split Personality: Identity Crises in Tunisian Politics

by Alysha Bedig on April 8, 2012

Secular Tunisians often complain that Ennahda, the Islamist party that now holds a plurality of seats and ministries in the new coalition government, engages in “double speak.” In public, party representatives articulate moderate positions — but they sometimes reverse those positions quite unexpectedly. And in private, Ennahda leaders are thought to advocate much more conservative views to supporters.

Some fear the party deliberately seeks to deceive. But it is more likely that party members themselves frequently disagree, battling out their differences and then re-writing the party platform accordingly.

Following last October’s elections, for instance, Ennahda leader Rashed Ghannouchi promised that his party would not attempt to include Islamic law, or sharia, in the new constitution. But starting soon after – and up until March 26th  — Ennahda representatives in the Constituent Assembly vigorously advocated for its inclusion as the principal legal source. (The coalition government has now tentatively decided instead to maintain the first clause of the constitution, which refers to Islam as the state religion but contains no special dispensation for the sharia.)

This was not the only flip-flop from Ennahda. After widely branding itself as a party favoring personal freedoms, Ennahda’s Minister of Transitional Justice Samir Dilou publicly announced that, “…sexual orientation is not a human right, [homosexuality] is rather a perversion that requires medical treatment.” The comment raised flags with international NGOs and the local LGBT community. Similarly, in a November radio interview, popular female member of Parliament and Ennahda member Souad Abderrahim was recorded saying that single mothers were a disgrace and do not have the right to exist, blatantly rejecting the party’s stated commitment to social freedoms. And while on stage at a political rally with a Hamas representative in November, Prime Minister and Ennahda member Hamadi Jebbali heralded the creation of a sixth caliphate, provoking secular parties to temporarily suspend their participation in the governing coalition in protest.

These episodes have exacerbated the trust deficit between the new government and opposition groups. Many Tunisians question the true nature of Ennahda’s ideology. But given that the previous regime actively repressed and fractured the party over the past twenty years, the answer is – unsurprisingly – that it’s all over the place.

In his final article, NYT reporter Anthony Shadid stressed just how much decades of exile in the West influenced the political thought of Islamists coming to power across the region today.  Within Ennahda, this history helped form two competing ideological arms in the party: one characterized by party elites who went abroad during the Ben Ali years, and the other characterized by those who remained in Tunisia. This second group includes formerly imprisoned leaders and much of the rank-and-file membership.

Sadaq Chorou, a senior Ennahda MP now known as “Tunisia’s Mandela” after spending 20 years in Ben Ali’s prisons, told me in a recent interview that, “…the movement is still experiencing birth pangs….we have not yet been fully formed.” After a government crackdown in 1991 in which over 30, 0000 Ennahda members were imprisoned or exiled, he explained, those in the West spent the bulk of the past decades lobbying for the release of party members from Tunisian prisons as opposed to further developing the group’s ideology as a cohesive entity.

Considered one of Ennahda’s most conservative members, Chorou raised public ire with comments in February suggesting that those participating in labor strikes should have their hands and feet cut off. He also was one of the key proponents for the inclusion of sharia in the constitution.

When I asked him to comment on Shadid’s thesis, Chorou affirmed, “It is true that the brothers who were in the Diaspora have been affected by the environment of Europe and America…this influence created new intellectual orientations, especially politically with regards to Islamic thought. [Their outlook] has changed dramatically since 1991…this has made the movement head in a different direction.” Indeed, Ennahda did not always possess the moderate reputation it enjoys today; immediately after his expulsion from Tunisia in 1990, Ghannouchi advocated for the veiling of women, suppressing foreign tourism, and a strict application of Islamic law.

Decades later, some leading figures’ views have changed dramatically. Ghannouchi now preaches the importance of non-compulsion in religious practice. But Chorou openly supports vigilante Salafist preaching, raising fears that the secularists in the new Tunisia may soon face similar lifestyle restrictions as Islamists faced under the former regime.

Where does this end? Chorou insists that the party is actively pursuing consensus, trying to find a middle ground that all members can support. This week’s decision to exclude the sharia as a legal source in the constitution will test that internal consensus. Following the announcement of the party’s decision, Ghannouchi commented, “Ennahda believes that religion is all about freedom of choice. The law cannot be relied on to impose Islam or virtue.” But it seems clear that not all Ennahda members feel this way.

Given the party’s history, a certain degree of ideological inconsistency is to be expected. Only time will tell whether these gaps are too large to maintain the unity of the movement – and the unity of Tunisia’s fledgling democratic government.

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