Tunisia: From Political Islam to Muslim Democracy?


The European Union today approved a 500 million euro ($570 million) loan to help Tunisia address economic challenges and bolster its democratic processes, Reuters reports:

Tunisia’s transition to democracy has been hailed as the success story of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, but economic development has floundered since the fall of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

“A plan to lend Tunisia 500 million euros on favourable terms to help it reduce its external debt and consolidate its democratic mechanisms was backed by MEPs on Wednesday,” the European Parliament said.

Last month the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $2.88 billion four-year loan programme for Tunisia to support economic and financial reforms.

Concern that Tunisia’s democratic success has not lifted its economic malaise prompted a recent Atlantic Council analysis (above) recommending that the United States and the European Union develop joint strategies to help Tunisia address the economic and security challenges threatening its nascent democracy.

To read the newspapers is to believe that Tunisia, the small country that sparked the Arab Spring, is the only one still on a recognizable path to democracy, in large part thanks to the conciliatory nature of the country’s leading Islamist party, Ennahda (“Renaissance”), notes Sarah J. Feuer, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ennahda another AKP?

“There is truth in this narrative,” she writes for Foreign Affairs. “At key moments of the democratic transition, Ennahda, which has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, distinguished itself from other Brotherhood derivatives by granting concessions to its secular opponents in the interest of preserving stability, even going so far as to cede to a technocratic government the political power it earned through free and fair elections, an unprecedented move for an Islamist party,” she adds:

In the end, the extent to which the Ennahda congress changes Tunisian politics may depend on the extent to which Ennahda itself changes. Analogies have been drawn to Turkey’s experience in the early 2000s, when the Islamist AKP recast itself as a socially conservative party and highlighted its economic platform in an effort to broaden its support base. Ennahda may have the AKP in mind, but the more relevant model today is arguably Morocco, where an Islamist party with Brotherhood roots legislates in parliament and even occupies the prime ministry but leaves overtly religious activities to its sister organization in civil society. Whether Ennahda changes its internal structures; where the party comes down on divisive legislation, such as the regulation of problematic imams or the recent proposal to remove the religious imprint on the country’s inheritance laws; and the degree to which the party campaigns on religiously oriented themes in the upcoming election cycles will give observers a clearer picture of Ennahda’s longer-term plans and more ammunition for the debate about the continued evolution of political Islam in Tunisia and in the wider Middle East. RTWT

Ghannouchi another Erdogan? 

The downside is that one does not quite know whether to trust Ennahda′s most recent statements, analyst Hans Dembowski writes for Qantara:

The FT correctly draws attention to the fact that Turkey′s AKP party took a similar stance in the past two decades. It chose to prioritise democracy over religious dogma and that helped it to become Turkey′s strongest party. It is depressing, that its top leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who managed to dismantle Turkey′s authoritarian ″deep state″, is himself now becoming ever more dictator-like.

In retrospect, it does not look as if Erdogan ever really wanted to make Turkey a more liberal country, but more like he had an instrumental attitude towards constitutional principles. So long as they serve his power hunger, he′ll insist on them, but he′ll just as happily abandon them should he feel they are standing in his way. It is impossible to say whether Ghannouchi means what he says today, or whether he will turn out to be just as power hungry as Erdogan should the opportunity arise.

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