Tunisia’s Battered Islamist Movement Seeks a Place in the Era of Change

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 5

Protesters in Tunis.

Despite its absence and lack of impact on recent events in Tunisia, the Islamist shadow has hung over the revolution in Tunisia since its eruption in the town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 led to the ouster of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali almost a month later. The impact of the Islamist opposition was slight and new powers, represented by the middle cadres of the General Union of Tunisian Workers and various Internet activists, rose to the forefront of the revolution. The new faces continue to operate within the framework of political change and away from any ideological classifications.

Demonstrations carry on even after the formation of a caretaker government, with eight key portfolios held by members of the Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD), which has dominated Tunisian politics for decades. Four ministers from the Labor Union –  a major player in the revolution – have resigned from the caretaker cabinet, demanding the abolition of the RCD. The demonstrations did not stop despite the resignations and other measures by the caretaker government that sought to reassure public opinion. These measures included the release of all 1,800 political detainees. On January 20, the government also lifted a ban on political groups including the Islamic Al-Nahda (Renaissance) movement and its exiled leader, Rachid Ghannouchi. The amnesty law is expected to be debated before its final adoption by the parliament, still controlled by the RCD (al-Hayat, January 21).

The absence of any Islamist role in provoking or even participating in the revolution is a result of their cadres and leaders being abroad for over 20 years now and the consequent weakness of their current presence inside Tunis. As Ghannouchi has noted: “No one can pretend that this revolution has been led by Islamists or Communists or any other group for that matter. This is a popular revolution and all the trends in Tunisian political society are present on the scene. At the same time it is clear that the Islamists are the biggest political force in Tunisia. The former regime suppressed all groups and in this transitional period all the groups are concentrating on rebuilding themselves.”  [1]

Clashes between al-Nahda and the Ben Ali regime erupted following the 1989 parliamentary elections, in which candidates of the officially unrecognized al-Nadha party ran as independents, gaining roughly 20% of the votes, though the actual results remained in dispute.

After al-Nahda emerged as the main rival to Ben Ali’s RCD, the struggle between the two escalated in 1991 when the ruling party rejected demands by the Islamist party for official recognition. In May 1991, the regime announced it had warded off a coup attempt that targeted Ben Ali’s life.  Security forces then launched fierce campaigns against al-Nahda members and supporters. In August 1992, some 30,000 members of al-Nahda were put behind bars and martial law courts sentenced 256 Islamist leaders to jail terms, some of them for life.

It is true that most al-Nahda members and leaders have been freed, but only after the movement was exhausted and left nonfunctional within Tunisian borders. Until the very last moment, Ben Ali insisted on using the Islamists as a scarecrow, arguing that his regime was working against their rise. It was a message that Ben Ali kept selling until hours before his escape, in an attempt to color the revolution with "green [i.e. Islamic] motives" despite the total absence of Islamists from the scene (almalaf.net, January 17).

Some military figures and members of the ex-ruling RCD are raising the same argument, continuing to promote the “Islamist threat” in an attempt to preserve their own interests and desire to maintain dominance over the country. In essence, they are giving the Tunisian public one of two options: the caretaker government, including ex-members of RCD, or the chaos that might prevail with the rise of the Islamists. [2] They even compare the return of Rachid Ghannouchi to that of Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini— a comparison that does not lack some basic similarities.

The long struggle with Ben Ali’s failing regime weakened the Nahda Movement and forced its leaders to migrate, remain behind bars or join other parties and political powers. In addition, a new powerful Islamist rival has surfaced over the last decade; namely the Salafist current, which is gaining more ground among Tunisians while holding different concepts and theories from al-Nahda and other Islamist political movements.

Ghannouchi recognizes the weakness of his movement and the total destruction of its structure within Tunisia. In that respect, he has laid down a five year plan to restructure the movement and regain its political base. He also believes that other political parties and powers banned by Ben Ali need the same time frame to regain their ability to function: "All parties have been weakened by suppression and we need five to six years to be able to organize democratic elections” (alittihad.press.ma, January 20). Al-Nahda and Ghannouchi declared one condition, shared by all other revolutionary players; namely the abolition of the RCD and the transitional government to rid the nation of figures from the old regime.

Al-Nahda’s Islamists are now trying to integrate with Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, not dominate it. They are seeking a place amidst the new powerful revolutionary players, especially those who believe in the Islamists’ right to freedom of expression and peaceful political work.

Al-Nahda has presented several visions and perspectives that emphasize the movement’s closeness to democratic and liberal Islam. Ghannouchi is the force behind these perspectives and he accepts secularism and believes in women’s civil rights. He also expresses admiration for Turkey’s Islamists and is considered close to that model of government. Ghannouchi himself emphasizes that notion, saying: "We are closer to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. We defend democracy and the civil rights of Tunisian women. We lead a moderate, democratic movement." He further highlighted that over 400 al-Nahda members have been accepted as refugees in Western countries, and "no one of them was ever associated with terrorist links." He further adds, "No party in Tunisia today could claim to have the majority and only a coalition government can rule." Another al-Nahda leader says the movement does not intend to push a candidate in the coming presidential elections (alittihad.press.ma, January 20).

Ghannouchi – now 69 –has returned to Tunisia, but his name is not well known to most Tunisians, especially amongst the youth, who did not get a chance to listen to his ideas under the old regime. Those who compare Ghannouchi to Khomeini should realize the difference between Ghannouchi’s non-impact on the current revolution and the huge role played by the late Iranian leader during the anti-Shah revolt, in addition to the totally different nature of Sunni Tunisia from that of Shiite Iran.

1. Mahan Abedin: “Tunisia: the advent of liberal Islamism – an Interview with Rashid Al-Ghannoushi,” January 30, 2011, https://religion.info/english/interviews/article_516.shtml
2.  Interview with Tunisian writer Abdul Haq Zammouri on the Internet, January 21, 2011.