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Tunisia's New al-Nahda

Tunisia's post-revolutionary politics are being profoundly shaped by the meteoric rise of the long-banned Islamist movement al-Nahda. Decades of fierce repression during the regime of former President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali crushed almost every visible manifestation of Tunisia's Islamist movement.  The banned movement played a very limited role in the revolution. But since Ben Ali's flight and the triumphant January 30 return of exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda has grown with astonishing speed. A recent survey found support for the party at just below 30 percent, almost three times that of its closest rival. Its ascent is fueling a dangerous polarization, leading putative champions of democracy to endorse the postponing of elections, and frightening many secularists and women who fear for their place in the new Tunisia.

I have just returned from a trip to Tunisia focused on the resurgence of al-Nahda. I emerged impressed with al-Nahda's organizational strength, democratic rhetoric, political energy, and by their determined efforts to engage with their political rivals and reassure their critics. But I also emerged with real concerns about the growing polarization and collapse of trust across the political class, which risks dividing the Tunisian public and crippling the desperately needed democratic transition. And I found even al-Nahda's leaders unsure about how to grapple with the rising salafi trend, which may be more of a source of weakness than a source of electoral strength.

There is far more to Tunisia's emerging political arena than just al-Nahda, of course. Its rise and the resulting polarization come at a time of deep uncertainty about the fate of the revolution. Much of the old regime remains in place within state institutions, as well as in the Tunisian media, business sector, and cultural elite. Many of those who drove the popular uprising are deeply disgruntled about how little the revolution has changed their lives;  while many of the people with whom I spoke were delighted with their newfound freedom, few saw real improvement in economic conditions. Many, particularly in the southern cities where the revolution began, feel that the world has abandoned them and that their revolution has been stolen.  While the world has largely turned away from Tunisia to focus on crises elsewhere across the region, the transition to democracy there is far from accomplished.   This is an important time to refocus on the place where the Arab upheavals began. Look for more coverage of these broader issues on Foreign Policy in the coming weeks. 

During my recent visit, I spoke at length with al-Nahda President Rached Ghannouchi, Executive Committee member Ziyad Djoulati, and a number of the movement's top political strategists. At a conference organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, I watched a tense panel featuring Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali (with whom I had met with previously) which turned into a riveting political spectacle of fierce political debate with critics from all directions. I spoke at that conference on a panel alongside Rached Ghannouchi on the role of religion in democracy -- a daunting assignment! I sat through a packed press conference announcing al-Nahda's withdrawal from the High Committee to Protect the Revolution, and watched a blistering exchange between the party's leaders and a prominent member of the committee. I attended two Nahda campaign rallies outside of Tunis, and had lengthy informal conversations with local activists and party leaders. I saw a lot of pro-Nahda and anti-Nahda graffiti on the streets. I also got to talk to a wide range of journalists, civil society activists, academics, foreign observers, and ordinary people in cafes. And sure, I talked with taxi drivers. 

The picture which emerges is more complex than the simply assumption of automatic Arab support for Islamist parties would suggest. The Ben Ali regime spent decades crushing any form of visible Islamist political organization in Tunisia.  Tens of thousands of the movements members were imprisoned or exiled, and according to all the leaders with whom I spoke no formal al-Nahda organization existed before the revolution. This is a sharp contrast with Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood maintained a highly visible public presence despite being officially banned. This history is double-edged. The long repression meant that al-Nahda had to start virtually from scratch in reconstituting itself, and did not have deep existing relationships with Tunisian youth. But it also meant that it was absolutely uncompromised by any relationship with the hated old regime, and could claim an attractive mantle of principled resistance and clean hands.

Al-Nahda set out to quickly rebuild itself after Ben Ali's flight. Its leaders had been increasingly active in Tunisian opposition circles since the mid-2000s, including convening a forum where representatives of most major political trends came together for sustained dialogues about democracy. A movement which had been largely shaped by its leaders in exile for decades began to find its feet again on the ground, even though continuing regime harassment of members even after their prison terms ended prevented any rebuilding of the organization.

On March 1, al-Nahda was legalized by the new interim government, and quickly moved to rebuild the movement. The core leadership immediately reached out to the tens of thousands of former activists now out of prison, many of whom were now locally respected business or civic leaders. They established offices in every Tunisian province, quickly setting up sections for youth, women, social services, and politics and holding internal elections to select a new leadership. Many Tunisian critics of al-Nahda have asked where the money for all this came from, often pointing to foreign support; when I asked, I was told that the financing came primarily from these successful former members now rejoining the cause. Whatever the case, money alone is clearly not the whole story. Al-Nahda threw itself into tireless organizing and mobilization, with Ghannouchi himself visiting 22 out of the 24 provinces since his return to the country. If al-Nahda today is better organized and more present at the local level than its rivals, this is due less to some natural "Islamist" appeal than to a tireless organizational campaign which others might have also tried.

The rallies I attended in Hammam Lief and the small southern town of  Hajeb l'Aloun (60 km from Kairouan) showed the care and energy al-Nahda brought to these mobilization efforts.  In Hammam Lief, some 4,000 people turned out to see Ghannouchi, including everyone from men dressed in signature salafi style and veiled mothers with young children to young women in tight jeans and tank tops. The rally's first speaker was a female academic who spoke forcefully about the role of women in the revolution and in Tunisian society. Music was provided by a small troupe which included both men and unveiled women performing under an enormous banner of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock (for all the careless talk of how the Arab revolutions were not about Palestine or America, this Nahda rally featured a tremendous amount of evidently well-received pro-Palestinian rhetoric as well as a rousing, sure to be chart-topping song with the refrain "no to American military bases, no to foreign interventions"). Ghannouchi himself was received like a rock star -- a far cry from his careful intellectual performance on our panel at the conference. The smaller rally in the south, by contrast, attracted a much more conservatively dressed crowd, and focused on local issues. Where the other rally flew Libyan rebel flags and posters of Jerusalem, these banners highlighted local health care concerns and slogans defending the centrality of democracy, toleration and pluralism to Islam. 

Al-Nahda's leaders are highly sensitive to the fears among other Tunisians and in the West about Islamist movements. Ghannouchi told me that al-Nahda had instructed its supporters to not come to the airport to meet him upon his return for fear of creating images reminiscent of Khomeini's return to Iran. Everyone pointed out the dangers of repeating the experience of Algeria in 1991, where massive electoral victories for the Islamist FIS led to a military coup and descent into years of horrific, brutal civil war, and the Hamas electoral victory in 2006 which resulted in international sanctions and an enduring intra-Palestinian political divide. 

The word of the hour was "consensus", with all stressing the need for broad societal agreement on major policy decisions. Djoulati said Tunisia would need at least 5 years of "consensual democracy" until the consolidation of the democratic transition, with all parties committing to not use electoral gains to impose their preferences on others. Ghannouchi speaks frequently about the model of Turkey's AKP -- whose approach his own writings reportedly inspired -- and all Nahda leaders point to their documents supporting political and civil freedoms and political democracy. When pushed on the extent of its commitment to democratic norms, Ghannouchi said that even if the Constitutional Convention decided to eliminate Article One declaring Tunisia to be an Arab Islamic state al-Nahda would respond by campaigning to convince the Tunisian public that this had been a bad idea and mobilizing pressure within the system. 

But for all of these efforts, Tunisia's politics are increasingly polarized into two camps and the foundations of this consensus are crumbling. The tremendous uncertainty about virtually everything makes credible commitments almost impossible. There is no consensus on the relative strength of the different political trends, no new constitution, no new political party law or other foundational rules of the game. Al-Nahda leaders complain that they are the victims of a massive scare-mongering campaign in the media, fueled by remnants of the old regime and by the Francophone, secularist elites who benefited from the old order. They also complain about the decision to postpone the first round of elections by three months, which they took as a clearly partisan intervention designed to give their competitors more time to organize against them. Their decision to withdraw from the Council for the Achievement of the Aims of the Revolution in protest over what they call anti-democratic and non-consensual decision-making only demonstrates concretely the rapid deterioration of the early hopes of consensus. 

Al-Nahda's critics view al-Nahda's calls for consensual democracy as a thinly disguised quest for hegemony, and express deep fears about whether the Islamist party will maintain its moderate discourse once in power. They see al-Nahda's political maneuvers as evidence of a more extreme agenda, and put little stake in the mild rhetoric of its leaders. They complain that al-Nahda has refused to put out a concrete program, which may be a rational move for the front-runners to avoid giving their rivals something to attack but which also raises doubts about their true commitments. I saw "no to al-Nahda" graffiti scrawled on an impressive number of walls (most people I asked thought that the old regime hands were behind it, but who knows), and heard both intensely positive and negative comments from a wide variety of people (most of whom had nothing but contempt or indifference for any other political party). In a political environment increasingly wired for polarization and harder-line rhetoric, and with great uncertainty about either the rules of the political game or the real political balance of power, these doubts and mistrust will only grow. "The discourse of al-Nahda's leaders is not the practice of its activists in the mosques and on the street," complained one prominent feminist. I heard quite a bit about this alleged gap between the Nahda leadership's progressive, reformist, democratic rhetoric and the more extreme behavior of its cadres from the movement's critics.

It is here that the rising salafi trend poses a particular challenge to al-Nahda. There is no clearly defined salafi political leadership -- Hezb al-Tahrir, which gets a lot of press, represents only a small fraction -- but by most accounts the trend is large and growing. Nahda leaders argue that Ben Ali encouraged the rise of the salafis as a counter-balance to their politically-minded movement, for years allowing salafi books to be sold freely and for salafi preachers to dominate local mosques while Nahda leaders were imprisoned and their literature banned. Indeed, several Nahda leaders told me that the rise of Tunisian salafis demontrated that "repression creates extremism." This is particularly the case with the youth, few of whom remember al-Nahda and who were far more exposed to salafi ideas in the mosques and on satellite TV during the Ben Ali years.

While this trend might at first glance be seen as a source of electoral strength for al-Nahda, in fact it poses a challenge because suspicious Tunisians worried about "Islamism" in general may hold al-Nahda responsible for salafi actions.  A few days ago, a group of salafis attacked a movie theater in downtown Tunis, shocking many Tunisians and sparking a wave of media commentaries.  At a press conference at the party headquarters on Monday, Ghannouchi strongly condemned the attacks, affirming that al-Nahda rejects any form of political violence or intellectual extremism.  But at the same time, he reserved the right to defend Tunisian values --a caveat which immediately triggers the suspicions of his critics about al-Nahda's true intentions.

It is vitally important that Tunisia's politics finds a way to deal with the rising strength of al-Nahda within a broad social and political consensus on political order. The decision to delay the elections for a constitutional convention may have been necessary on technical grounds, but has proven destructive in other ways -- undermining trust among the major players, giving more time for the old regime to find its footing and entrench its interests within the new system, and blunting the democratic transition. Tunisia's politicians should pull back from their rush towards polarization...but probably won't, since each side has strong political incentives to continue to play those cards. Fear of al-Nahda should not be accepted as an excuse to further delay Tunisian elections, the writing of a new constitution, and a democratic transition.

Photos by Marc Lynch

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