In the days after the fall of the regime of Tunisia‘s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the long-exiled founder of the Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi (left) made a triumphant return. The Ennahda political party, which hold its General Conference this month, has long been described as “Islamist,” Le Monde reports:
Now 74, Ghannouchi outlined to Le Monde a major ideological shift that his party is currently undergoing. The Ennahda movement, which has a majority in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, is now seeking to define itself as a civil movement. Ghannouchi says that since the 2011 revolution and the adoption of the new Constitution in 2014, there is no point in referring to the term “political Islam” anymore.
Osama Sghaier, a party spokesman, said Nahda said the issue of Tunisia’s identity was already settled by the constitution, The Financial Times adds:
He said the party wanted to shed the “Islamist” tag so as not to be grouped together with violent groups such as al-Qaeda.
“We are Muslim democrats,” he said.
Mr Sghaier said one change adopted at the conference will ban all elected cadres in the party hierarchy from involvement in civil society groups such as religious or charitable associations.
“If you want to be in politics you can, and if you want to be in civil society, that is also possible, but you can’t do both,” he said. “In the past, we struggled to be present wherever we could, but now this decision conforms to a democratic choice and to the law and the constitution.”
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, of the opposition Nida Tunis member, said the move was a positive step, saying that “Islam presents no danger to democracy.”
“Ennahda benefited and learned from the regional changes after the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and understood well that there was no future in political Islam,” analyst Jamel Arfaoui told Reuters.
“Ennahda succeeded in shaping a new image for Islamists abroad, but the question remains will it be able to persuade people locally that it has changed.”
The move represents a “rebranding” by Nahda as well as a “formalisation of a long-brewing trend within the party,” said Monica Marks, a Tunisia specialist. “I see this as mainly about messaging,” she said. “They don’t want to be lumped into the same category as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. They want to be more like the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, or the AKP in its early version in Turkey,” she told the FT:
“All the same, religious identity will still play a role. Conservative Tunisians who believe that religion has a role in public life will gravitate to Nahda, whose internal culture will remain Islamist. For instance, the delegates to the conference are being hosted in hotels which do not serve alcohol.”
In the early years of the transition, when Nahda was the main party in government, it came under intense criticism from secular groups who accused it of being soft on extremist factions in the country.
The killing of two secular politicians by radicals in 2013 led to massive demonstrations against the party and calls for steps already taken in the transition, such as the election of a constitution-drafting assembly, to be annulled. Subsequent negotiations, mediated by civil society groups [including partners of the National Endowment for Democracy], saved the transition, but many secular Tunisians remain suspicious of Nahda.
Bochra Belhaj, an independent secular member of the Tunisian parliament, said she will be looking to see if Nahda’s announcements will be followed by concrete steps.
“This is a positive move, but we will have to see what it will mean in reality,” she said. “Specifically, I want to see if they stop supporting hardline religious associations which have praised terrorism in the past.”