Why Tunisia’s Ennahda rejected Islamist ‘ideology of failure’



How to explain the shift in Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, which has formally stepped away from the radical Islamism of its past to divide itself into a civil political party and a separate religious movement? asks Rory McCarthy, a researcher at the University of Oxford:

  • The most common explanation is that Ennahda was simply acting pragmatically….Even if it had really wanted to apply sharia law or to take a more confrontational stance against the former regime elites, the reality of transition politics instead required compromise,” he writes for The Washington Post:
  • A better way to think of Ennahda’s shift in strategy is to ask what lessons the movement drew from its own history. ..In jail and in exile, the movement went through a process of evaluation. It admitted that its political ambition had overwhelmed its original cultural and social Islamising project. It accepted that it had failed to build alliances with other opposition parties and that occasional acts of violence had undermined its position. Different trends learned different lessons.
  • The third explanation for this strategic shift is that it represents a more profound but inconclusive intellectual adaptation. The division into party and movement is not merely a functional separation but an attempt to rethink what it means to be an Islamist movement that competes within a democratic system.

Party members overwhelmingly expressed their support for the motion to separate political affairs of the party from religious and cultural activities, albeit with the understanding that Islam remains the party’s ideological foundation, The New York Times adds.

“Before we were afraid for our identity,” Mohammad Krad, a party member from the island of Djerba, said as he left the rally last Friday. “Now we have a Constitution that says we are Arab and Muslim, so we do not need restate it in our politics.”

The shift is intended also to pre-empt criticisms from liberals and secularists, notes analyst Larbi Sadiki. Ennahda can now claim it is transcending politics of identity, he contends:

  • First, one of the reasons is the normalisation of Ennahda party with the ‘deep state’, a term coined to refer to the politico-security establishment that has preserved the imprints of late Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba’s political modelling of it a la Francophile: secular in nature….Ennahda is finally being deftly adaptive, seeking a brand of “Tunisification” of its identity as a major political force with a fixed 35 to 40 percent political following.
  • A second motive for Ennahda is professionalisation. So by defending a new identity that separates the religious from the political, Ennahda has turned an important corner on the way to a fully-fledged civic political party…..
  • Third, democratisation via factionalisation: This is a salient feature of maturing political parties anywhere.

Ennahda’s shift coincided with an announcement by Egypt’s state-sponsored Islamic authority (Dar Al-Ifta), which issues edicts, that a plan by the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group to re-examine its political ideology and activities was overdue, Al-Ahram reports:

A sub-body of Dar Al-Ifta that monitors jihadist and extremist edicts said that recent remarks by Brotherhood leaders indicating the movement aims to carry out a major reassessment is a result of an “ideology of failure” and its “defeat in the political and religious fields.”

While Tunisia has escaped the chaos of Yemen, Syria and Libya, public distress is growing over corruption, massive unemployment and a failure, so far, of reforms to change the reality of people’s lives, notes Nancy Lindborg of the US Institute of Peace. Fully 83 percent of Tunisians said in a November poll (above) by the International Republican Institute [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy] that the country is headed in the wrong direction — the deepest pessimism since the 2011 revolution, she writes for The Hill.

“The leadership of Ennahda has drawn from its past a sense of the need for caution and inclusion,” adds McCarthy, a former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian. “As a result, the new priority given to a consensus-seeking political strategy is part strategic adaptation, part intellectual shift. However, Ennahda’s leaders are still to convince all of the movement or its political rivals of the value of their new approach.” RTWT

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