Tunisia’s elections and Ennahda’s moderate vote
A. V. 10 October 2011

It presents itself in a modern style, both in its political programme and in its way of communicating. At the same time, the party remains linked to a more traditional strategy that connects it to better-known movements such as Hamas, Hezbollah and, to a certain extent, to the Muslim Brotherhood, with its sermons in mosques and charitable aid for poorer families, both of which create a network of dependence and popularity. The party has also recently been paying entirely for some constituents’ marriages, it has said, thanks to funds coming from Persian Gulf countries. And yet, in the face fears that Ennahda might be the Islamic turning point in secular Tunisia, the movement’s representatives rush to reiterate that they will maintain all the social reforms implemented during the Bourghiba era. Hamadi Jebali, the group’s secretary-general and spokesman, even promises that they will respect everything set out in the Code du statut personnel, which came into force in 1957 with a series of progressive laws that are particularly attentive to gender equality.

Jebali also explained this at the last Rimini Meeting, an unusual setting for him. An Italian, Giacomo Fiaschi, took Jebali to the meeting. Fiaschi has lived in Tunis since the ’90s, was recently appointed political advisor for Ennahda’s relations with Italy and is neither Muslim nor a party member. The choice to come to the meeting provides food for thought about the movement’s ambitions and its interests in diplomatic relations abroad.

“There is a need to create strong bonds with Europe and above all with neighbouring countries, also taking into account the Lampedusa issue,” Giacomo Fiaschi says in an interview. Explaining his work for Ennahda, Fiaschi says, “they asked me to make the movement known to Italians, and I accepted.”

“This is not just a way of facilitating contacts and relations with Italy, but also a specific desire to bear witness that Ennahda is not a religious movement and it does not intend to implement a theocracy. The current managerial class supports the idea of a neutral state. I am using the word neutral rather than secular in case secular should be perceived as anti-religious.” According to its political advisor, Ennahda has thus become a party that is not only close to Erdogan’s AKP (a link confirmed in the course of the Turkish leader’s visit to Tunisia), but which is also similar to “the Christian Democratic Party in the ’50s; with a spirit based on a national identity founded on shared values.” In Tunisia, this national identity would be found in its Arab-Muslim identity.

“Ennahda isn’t the only political movement in Tunisia inspired by Islam,” continues Fiaschi, “and it is certainly not the most extreme one.” The reference is to the still-illegal Tahrir party.

Presenting the electoral programme, the party’s historical leader Rashid Ghannushi said that they wish “to implement a model for national development founded on Islamic values.”

“The reforms would include substantial economic initiatives and interventions,” emphasized Fiaschi, “such as, for example, redefining the role played by governors. Tunisia is a highly varied country with different needs depending on the area. Then there is the problem concerning unemployment among the young and the need to find alternatives in Tunisia to ensure that many Tunisians do not flee their country. These are the priorities at the moment.”

Outside of the debate over the party’s Islamist intentions or lack-there-of, there has no doubt in recent months been unrest in Tunisia, if not of real intolerance, from the more extremist groups regarding situations that until now have been normal and accepted. For example, there was an attack on the AfricaArt cinema during a screening of the film directed by Nadia Al Fani “Ni Allah, ni maître” (Neither God nor master) – presented at the Cannes Festival with the titles “Laicity inch’Allah.” Also, last September, the police had to intervene to stop clashes with extremists in Biserta over the illegal sale of alcoholic drinks. Then in Kef, a Salafite group supposedly occupied the ancient Byzantine basilica to transform it into a mosque. Security forces intervened peacefully, according to an Interior Ministry spokesperson, inviting the Salafites to present an official request to the Ministry of Worship. According to Fiaschi, “these were provocative episodes.”

“The party, and Ghannushi in particular, have strongly distanced themselves from certain events. Condemnation has been expressed with no ifs and buts,” he says, adding, “All forms of violence and lack of tolerance are neither shared nor tolerated.”

According to cables published by Wikileaks, the fears of many about Ennahda were not shared by the United States, not even during the Ben Ali era, when U.S. diplomats had good relations with members of the party that remained in Tunisia, gaining from them information needed for understanding the role played by Islam in Tunisia and in the Middle East.

Ziad Doulatli was a friend of the U.S. ambassador, William Hudson, in Tunis and was the person in charge for ensuring that the group’s moderation was understood. Wikileaks published a series of documents about meetings held in 2006, at which, for example, American officials tried to understand, with help from the then-banned Ennahda party, Hezbollah’s importance in the war between Lebanon and Israel in the summer of 2006. It is not clear whether all members of Ennahda were frequent guests at the American embassy in Tunis, but what is certain is that its most influential representatives held a dialogue for many years with the United States, offering to act as intermediaries between the U.S. and the Islamic world, perhaps already hoping that they would be acknowledged and supported in future aspirations.

Translated by Francesca Simmons