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Islam and Politics ( 26 Jul 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamists in Tunisia: A Third Scenario for Islamism in the Arab World?



By Manel Zouabi

July 23, 2014

Tunisian legislative and presidential elections were announced to be held successively on October and November 2014. The chances of En-Nahda Islamist party in winning these elections are still high even after a turbulent previous experience in power, which ended by ‘forced’ resignation in January 2014.

The scenario of the future of politicized Islam in Tunisia is still unpredictable and fuzzy. The unpredictability of the way the post-revolutionary Tunisian Islamist model will move forward is partly because of its ‘unconventionality’ compared to Islamist experiences in other parts of the Muslim Arab world and in pre-revolutionary times.

We are accustomed to two conventional scenarios that political Islam usually experiences. The first potential scenario is oppression and exclusion at the hands of opponent political powers. The second scenario is the oppression and exclusion of opponent political powers as well as the establishment of a theocracy.

Pre-revolutionary Tunisia can be an example for the first scenario of the ‘taken-for granted’ oppression and exclusion of Islamists. It was partly ‘Machiavellian’ pragmatism that led the powerful political elite at that time to try to eliminate Islamists as they could transform into a ‘scary’ political version of Iranian Islamists. This oppressive plan was backed, not only by the political elite, but also by a wide range of everyday Tunisians who had developed extreme paranoia toward Islamism.

Islamist movements across the globe are usually associated, and particularly in Tunisia, with the ideas of radicalism, terrorism, lack of security and hostility to women and modernity. Of course, this is very simplistic, over-generalizing and consequently unfair to Islamists; yet, this assumption had been built up and strengthened through ‘individual’ Islamist violence acts, ‘anti-Islamist’ propaganda and some disappointing international Islamist experiences of which the Iranian and the Algerian (1990’s) ones are the most heard of for Tunisians.

Because of the political elite’s ambitions and the popular paranoia toward Islamism, Tunisia opted for trading democracy for ‘security’ and for ‘the conventional’. Islamist ‘predicted’ threats on civil liberties, women and security was eliminated through the radical decision of excluding Islamists even before they could expose a rule model to the world.

Oppressive governments treat Islamists as a ‘headache’ for which pain relief pills are taken, but serious consultation and scrutiny are never done. This scenario proved to have temporary rather than long-term effects. It is possible to cancel the physical presence of a thought in public media, politics and society. But, it is impossible to prevent it from growing even in the dark. As soon as the Ben Ali regime was overthrown in Tunisia, the excluded Islamist thought quickly sprang into public life and became a remarkably powerful phenomenon.

The second scenario for political Islam is the establishment of a theocracy. As an example, the Iranian Islamic model has hardly given a positive image of the way Islamists in power can respect personal freedoms. There are striking restrictions and violations of human rights and particularly women’s rights and political opponents in the name of Islam. Al-Bachir’s Islamist experience in Sudan is also disappointing in terms of civil rights and political plurality.

Both conventional scenarios of Islamist experiences end with exclusion and oppression. It is because of these potential endings that many everyday apolitical Tunisians, if offered to choose, would opt for the very simplistic ‘egoist’ choice of oppressing Islamists. They would rather sacrifice them in hope of preserving security and a decent level of civil freedom than accepting them and risking falling in the trap of a theocracy and losing Bourguibist feminist and civil reforms.

Between the first model of pre-revolutionary Tunisia and the second one of the Islamic Republic of Iran stands Tunisian post-revolutionary Islamism. To be fair to the En-Nahda experience in power, this Islamist party presented a unique model of the way Islamists can respect the democratic goals of the Revolution and adapt with political plurality.

As soon as they won the elections, they formed a coalition with two secular parties (though it was rather seen as an En-Nahda controlled coalition). Also, they accepted to negotiate their resignation rather than to enter into a turbulent circle of violence as was the case for their fellow Egyptian Islamists. It is also worth mentioning that Tunisia’s ‘progressive’ post-revolutionary Constitution was drafted and signed during their rule (though impressive articles, particularly the ones that deal with women’s rights and the criminalization of calling others ‘infidels’, were adopted after huge public pressure on En-Nahda deputies).

So, despite harsh criticisms and aspects of political ‘failure’ or rather ‘wrong strategy and choices’, we can still see the positive example that this Islamist movement displayed. En-Nahda can even advance further and win the trust of the ‘anti-En-Nahda’ category of Tunisians if it can meet the following expectations:

1. Cutting all ties with radical Islamist wings instead of conspiring with them as leaked videos of Ghannoushi and Mourou have proved.

2. Presenting and participating in a very firm and serious agenda of fighting against terrorism instead of tolerating it (Ali Laaraydh, Nahdouist Prime Minister alleged of helping the radical terrorist Abu Iyadh to escape police in Liman Yajroo fakat show)

3. Fighting corruption within the party: Stop appointing officers in terms of loyalty to the party rather than competence and experience (the Nahdaouist mayors’ appointments’ scandal). Also, explaining to the public what was done with huge international aid as the post-Islamist technocrat government of Mahdi Jomaa insists that the country is ‘penniless’ and stepping toward bankruptcy (Rafik Abdusalam, Islamist ex-Foreign Affairs Minister and son in Law of the Ennahda leader Rached Ghannoushi is legally accused of ‘stealing’ the Chinese aid to the Tunisian government and putting it in his personal account. The case is still in court). Thirdly, providing investigations and documented answers to the accusations of misuse of the public wealth by party members.

4. Prioritizing the rule of law over personal relations and loyalties.

5. (Re) considering urgent economic and social problems such as unemployment, education, violence against women a priority over the questions of Niqab, Hijab, etc. (dress code of women), and the invitation of Saudi Islamic scholars to lecture in Mosques.

6. Putting the dignity and well-being of Tunisians as a central interest over other religious and ideological considerations: Tunisians come first.

7. Respecting democracy instead of being ‘forced’ to respect it: En-Nahda should have left office on October 2012 according to the electoral law instead of doing this on January 2014 after long and exhaustive national and international pressure (not to forget what happened in Egypt, which was a free lesson for Tunisian Islamist politicians and the public).

8. Showing full loyalty to the Tunisian flag and people instead of prioritizing the interests of international organizations and countries.

These are but few of the hopes that post-revolutionary Tunisians put on their new political candidates. Once En-Nahda fully adapts with the Tunisian identity and reality, it will have very high chances in winning more popular support and creating a ‘third Islamist’ scenario.

However there remains one question to be asked: if En-Nahda’s political ‘mistakes’, especially in foreign and economic policies, are tolerated as a mark of immaturity and lack of experience that can be expected from a fledgling democracy, are its offences against the Tunisian people (corruption, conspiracy, and allegations of support of terrorism) not taken seriously by law and civil society?

It seems that En-Nahda was forgiven for that too as she is entering the next elections as a proud and strong rival…

Manel is a doctoral researcher in Women's Studies at the University of York.