Perhaps the most enduring lesson we can learn from the political crises currently unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt is that the task of operating an underground opposition movement is very different from governing a country.
In both states, former Islamist opposition groups, once oppressed by successive authoritarian regimes, now find themselves in possession of political power, and responsible for navigating their countries through turbulent post-revolutionary waters.
Both Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are struggling to earn the trust of those outside their natural constituencies while facing intense scrutiny at the international level. While Ennahda has performed better than its Egyptian counterpart, its future is looking ever more perilous.
The current unrest in Tunisia, precipitated by the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, constitutes the party’s greatest test yet—one that may prove to be its undoing. Under the spotlight of high expectations, distrust, and suspicion, Ennahda’s flaws and internal contradictions have been exposed.
Ennahda’s Rapidly Reduced Credibility
Tunisia’s Ennahda-led government has been the subject of much criticism. The country’s post-revolutionary political leadership has been unable to adequately address high levels of unemployment that helped foment the revolution. In the year following the January 2011 revolution, unemployment rose by 5%. Over 16% of the population is currently out of work. Meanwhile, the inflation rate is at an unsustainable 6% (and continues to climb) – yet another symptom of the country’s volatile economic situation.
The government faces criticism for Tunisia’s deteriorating security situation as well. Besides the American Embassy attack in late September 2012, widespread unrest in interior towns continues. Moreover, rising crime rates have contributed to popular dissatisfaction with the government’s performance. Both street vendors and urban elites alike believe many aspects of life were better before 2011, and have little confidence in the government’s ability to ensure their safety.
Recently, Ennahda experienced its first tawdry political scandal. In January 2013’s “Sheratongate,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdessalem was accused of spending public funds on an expensive hotel room he shared with an unidentified woman for at least one night. Because Abdessalem is Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, many began to question the morals of the party’s leadership. The blogger who broke the story was also put under investigation and ordered to remain in the country, fueling accusations that the new government’s approach to dissent was similar to its predecessors.
Ennahda’s lack of political experience is one factor inhibiting its performance. The leadership of this former underground organization consists predominantly of veteran activists who were brutally persecuted by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el Abidine Ben-Ali.
The movement was almost entirely dismantled within Tunisia in the early 1990s under the Ben-Ali regime. Several of its key leaders spent 20 or more years far removed from Tunisian society, either in jail or exiled abroad. Now, these same figures have suddenly been tasked with running the country. It should come as no surprise, then, that their time in power has been far from successful.
The Islamist-Secularist Divide in Tunisia
Although Islamist by definition, Ennahda exhibits significant ideological diversity within its ranks. While the leadership tends to be fairly moderate, the party’s base is regarded as more fundamentalist. There is also a generational divide; old hands like Ghannouchi and Hamadi Jebali spent much of their lives removed from Tunisian society, while the youth have suffered through the tribulations of working-class Tunisian life.
Under Bourguiba and Ben-Ali, secularism was king while religious/Islamic values were rejected and even condemned. Accordingly, for many Tunisians today, Ennahda and its Islamist predilections are a source of fear. For its opponents, Ennahda’s leaders are unfamiliar outsiders. These critics believe the group caters to more radical Islamist elements in Tunisian society, and that its moderate public rhetoric masks its real aims.
In Tunisia, the divide between the population’s secular and religious elements is particularly striking. While this lack of trust and understanding must generally be overcome, it represents a particularly difficult obstacle for the Islamist-led government.
Liberals in urban areas can be dismissive of religious traditions and outward displays of Islam. Many have little regular contact with fellow citizens who are more religious or conservative. For liberals, the rapid increase in the appearance of bearded men and veiled women in the streets may be dismissed as a mere fad, something alien to their understanding of Tunisian life.
While the party dominates parliament, support for Ennahda is not as substantial as it may seem. The group significantly outperformed every other party in the 2011 election, but also profited greatly from the lack of cohesion among small, secular parties. Although recent polls suggest that approximately one-third of voters support Ennahda, this figure may decrease as Nidaa Tounes, a secular opposition coalition founded by a former prime minister, comes together. Since the majority of Tunisians remain fairly secular, Ennahda must appeal beyond its core constituency to be a contender in future elections.
The Belaid Assassination
The assassination of anti-Islamist opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6, 2013 drove Tunisia from a state of uncertainty into a deep political crisis. Ennahda’s reactions in the coming weeks will play a large part in determining the party’s future.
On the day of the assassination, Jebali, Secretary General of Ennahda and a long-time, respected member of the movement, announced plans to install a technocratic government to guide the country through the crisis. Jebali made this statement before consulting the rest of his party, which rejected the measure to preserve Ennahda’s dominance in the cabinet. Unable to market his plan successfully, Jebali resigned his post, as did members of secular parties in the ruling coalition. This forced Ennahda to form a new cabinet.
While the Belaid murder investigation has been stalled, Ennahda has been blamed of complicity in the crime by many Belaid supporters, including his widow. Conspiracy theories run rife in Tunisia, making it hard to convince Ennahda opponents the party did not play a role. While not all groups have directly blamed party for the assassination, masses protesting in front of the Ministry of Interior recently accused the government of fostering a divisive political environment that allowed such incidents to occur.
Conclusion: Ennahda’s Road Ahead
One key lesson to be learned from Ennahda’s experience is that it is difficult to be the first government in power after a revolution. The party has had to deal with saving an economy in distress, reforming state institutions forged under dictatorial regimes, and fostering unity in a society long taught to be suspicious and hostile toward Islamists. This is a tall order for any government, especially in a country accustomed to single-party politics and political persecution.
Ennahda’s rise to power has revealed its flaws and shortcomings. As the current crisis unfolds, its hold on the government appears to grow weaker with each passing day. While its fight against Ben-Ali is over, in a country where democratic political parties are a new phenomenon, it is inevitable Ennahda would find itself dealing with other struggles.
To survive the coming weeks, the party must develop a platform that appeals to moderate secularists, prove its commitment to working effectively with other parties, and focus on gaining the trust of secular liberals. Unfortunately, however, its nomination of divisive interior minister Ali Laarayedh as the new prime minister suggests the party may instead be drifting further toward the right.
If Ennahda fails, it risks permanent marginalization and exclusion from the government. If it succeeds, it will be a model for the entire Muslim world of an effective Islamist party.
*Tristan Dreisbach is a freelance writer and researcher based in Tunis, Tunisia. He has previously worked for the New York University Center on International Cooperation.