This article is an adapted excerpt from Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

During the question-and-answer session of a lecture I gave in Tunis two years after the Arab revolts began, a scholar in attendance called Tunisia a “laboratory” for political scientists. The country was small and homogenous and, considering its strategic remoteness, there was less foreign meddling to account for. Decades of forced secularization had come to an end. Now, Tunisians, for the first time in their modern history, could return to something resembling a natural equilibrium. But no one quite knew what that would look like.

There was a lot riding on the Tunisian experiment, particularly when it came to the role of religion in public life. Just one day after the country’s first post-revolution assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid and amid fears of civil strife, the prominent socialist politician Lobna Jribi told me that Tunisia offered perhaps “the last chance to show that Islam and democracy can work together.” This might have been going too far, but there is something to be said about Tunisian “exceptionalism.” Tunisian Islamists aren’t quite the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democrats that they sometimes make themselves out to be, but they are, along with Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, as “moderate” as you can probably get in the Arab world and still call yourself Islamist.

Like most Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups in the region, the Movement of the Islamic Tendency (MTI), as it was originally called, gained a following among university students in the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s, before being crushed by the regime. When MTI released its founding statement in 1981, it had already set itself apart. Although the statement avoids using the word “democracy” and is heavy on references to moral and cultural renewal, there is no explicit discussion of applying sharia law or establishing an Islamic state. The rest of the decade saw MTI displaying a growing comfort with the tenets of democratic life. As longtime Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi would put it in his first interview after the 2011 revolution: “We drank the cup of democracy in one gulp back in the 1980s while other Islamists have taken it sip by sip.”

Ghannouchi, first in prison and then in exile, would push the boundaries of what was possible in Islamic political theory, embracing popular sovereignty and democratizing the notion of the umma. Sharia, rather than something preexisting or imposed, was whatever the people decided it would be. For Ghannouchi and the rest of Ennahda’s leaders, getting to that point wasn’t easy. The extent of repression in Tunisia had few parallels in the Arab world. At first, religious associations, such as Society for the Preservation of the Quran, were allowed some degree of freedom in the 1970s. In a story that repeated itself throughout the region, President Habib Bourguiba, an Ataturk-like secular modernizer, thought he could use Islam to counter the Marxist left. But Ghannouchi and his colleagues, initially content to focus on preaching and education, turned their attention to politics and soon formed the largest and best organized opposition group in the country. In the 1989 elections, an increasingly confident Ennahda party—it dropped the “Islamic” moniker of MTI in a show of good faith—won 14 percent of the vote (party officials claim it was as much as 60 percent in some areas). For the regime, this was a shock and a provocation.

In the subsequent years, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—who upon assuming power in 1988 organized a “national pact” and promised a democratic transition—quickly changed course, systematically dismantling Ennahda’s organizational structure and detaining tens of thousands of Islamists. The lucky ones, like Ghannouchi, fled into exile. Ben Ali went much further than his Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts could ever hope to go. With the exception of Syria, Tunisia became the closest thing the region had to a full-on totalitarian state. While their husbands disappeared into Ben Ali’s dungeons, the women of Ennahda led a steely existence, ostracized by their communities and monitored by the authorities. “Other than with my immediate family, I virtually had no contact with people,” recalled Monia Brahim, who became a member of Ennahda’s executive committee in 2011. It is one thing to repress political opposition, a normal feature of Arab authoritarian politics, but it is quite another to try to erase an entire movement, anyone associated with it, and anything it might stand for.

For anyone who has spent much time in the “rest” of the Arab world, walking the streets of Tunis, the capital city, can be disorienting. Tunisia, today, is a product of more than five decades worth of aggressive seculariztion, imposed by first Bourguiba and then Ben Ali. After the revolution, Ennahda’s Osama al-Saghir became one of the country’s youngest members of parliament. Only 28 years old, he had spent the previous 17 years—his entire adult life—in Italy, where he became an Italian citizen and a founding member of the Democratic Party (which came first in the February 2013 elections). For those who had built new lives in exile, returning to Tunisia could be a confusing process. Many, like Saghir, found a country they didn’t quite recognize. “After coming back,” he told me, “I was surprised to notice that there wasn’t one mosque on Bourguiba Avenue [the main avenue in the capital].” But even early on as a child growing up in Tunis, he knew something was amiss. “It was confusing,” Saghir said, “when in Egyptian movies, they talked about having big social events on Thursday night. Why Thursday night? I realized later it was because we had a different weekend.” Indeed, Tunisia is one of only three Arab countries that share their weekends with France. It has some of the region’s lowest levels of support for religiously-derived criminal punishments: according to a 2012 Pew poll, only 18 percent of Tunisians support the death penalty for apostasy, 28 percent favor cutting of the hands of thieves, while 28 percent think adulterers should be stoned (the comparable numbers for Egypt are 88, 70, and 80 percent).

Bourguiba, the country’s first post-independence leader, remains a towering figure in Tunisian life, casting a long shadow over the country’s politics. While Bourguiba was not beyond instrumentalizing Islam for his own purposes, he saw orthodox Islam—and particularly its Islamist incarnations— as a grave threat to his secularizing project. What flowed from this were a series of acts that, to many religiously minded Tunisians, were simply unforgivable, including, most famously, his purposeful breaking of the Ramadan fast with a glass of orange juice on national television. They were key to shaping the narrative of cultural alienation, which continues to be a major theme of Islamist discourse to this day.

The profound changes under way in Tunisia would shape Ghannouchi’s thinking as a young man, even though a full embrace of political Islam would not come until later, after a period of near-atheism. Ghannouchi had grown up in a traditional religious family, where Islam was a natural, unquestioned part of everyday life. Yet, when he ventured off to Tunis to study at Zaytouna College, he was confronted with the rapid secularization of life under Bourguiba. Ghannouchi was one of the last cohorts of students to complete the religious education curriculum at Zaytouna, which had been, along with Egypt’s al-Azhar, one of the region’s preeminent centers of Sunni Islamic scholarship. But even at Zaytouna, only a few students—out of nearly three thousand—used the prayer room on campus.

In his biography of Ghannouchi, Azzam Tamimi, himself a prominent Islamist figure associated with Hamas, writes that Ghannouchi and his fellow students felt as if they were “[touring] a history museum that had no relevance to the present. The tour failed to provide them with any guidance and failed to explain to them how to live Islam in a milieu that had already been westernized. To him, that was a somber tour.” Everywhere, there seemed to be an absence of Islam: “In the lecture hall, nothing was mentioned about an Islamic economy, an Islamic state, an Islamic art; and nothing was mentioned about the position of Islam on contemporary issues.” Even the very manner in which Ghannouchi grew up—as part of a polygamous family, with two different women he called “mother”—would no longer possible under Bourguiba’s prohibition of multiple marriages.

By the time Bourguiba’s reign ended nearly three decades later, Tunisia had been transformed in a way that no other Arab country was. The once-controversial Code of Personal Status, which had liberalized laws on marriage, divorce, and inheritance, had taken hold and gained widespread acceptance. The headscarf, which Islamists considered a religious obligation, had been banned in public buildings, including institutions of higher education.

This unique history and cultural context is critical to understanding the meaning of the “Islamic project” in Tunisia. When Ghannouchi and the leaders of Ennahda returned from exile (or prison), they had no organizational presence in the country. A majority of Tunisians who had come of age after the movement was dismantled had no real memory of Ennahda beyond what they had heard in the state media. Elsewhere, the situation couldn’t be any more different. In Egypt, for example, Islamists had already, in a sense, claimed victory. After being released from prison in the early 1970s, they returned to preaching their message of religious renewal across the country. They began the slow, difficult work of rebuilding an organization that had effectively disappeared from public life. By the time Mubarak fell nearly 40 years later, society had been Islamized to a large degree, with religion—and, increasingly, its more conservative strains—imbuing every aspect of public life. Where the personal status code in Tunisia had become “sacred,” in Egypt, Article 2 of the constitution—which enshrined the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation—had become similarly beyond reproach. Much of civil society was Islamist in nature, composed of religious charities and foundations that served hundreds of thousands of Egyptians throughout the country. And while the Brotherhood had been blocked from the national media, Salafis had risen to prominence on the airwaves.

In short, after the Egyptian uprising, the Brotherhood and Salafis were working to solidify something that was already there and had been for decades. In Tunisia, Ennahda had a fundamentally different task at hand. Any process of “Islamization” in the Arab world’s most secular nation would require a re-rendering of society, something that would prove both slow and challenging, not to mention a profound threat to the country’s avowedly secular elites.

The Politics of Stages

They had risen to power within a year of Ben Ali’s overthrow and within a year of returning to a country they thought they had lost forever. But perhaps they, like their Egyptian counterparts, had moved too quickly. If any Islamist group had appropriated the lessons of Algeria, it was Ennahda. Where other Islamist parties had made a habit of “losing on purpose,” Ennahda in 1989 opted, in a rushed decision, to contest the vast majority of seats, despite the objections of several leading figures in the movement. Like in Egypt and Jordan, the Tunisian regime finally realized the extent to which Islamists had become a threat to its hold on power. The crackdown that would decimate Tunisia’s Islamic movement was not far behind. Ghannouchi himself would later acknowledge that he had employed a “provocative discourse.”

In quick succession, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan, after experiencing unprecedented democratic openings, reversed course and began the descent into unbridled authoritarianism. But it was Algeria that, for the region’s Islamists, was most tragic. Never before had they stood suspended between outright victory and total destruction. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” Abdelkader Hachani said in the days before the Algerian military made its move in January 1992. After the coup and the subsequent crackdown, Islamists adopted an increasingly cautious posture, perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past.

But that caution was of little use after Ben Ali fell in an uprising that was a surprise to the ruling regime as much as it was to Ennahda. Party leaders returned triumphant to Tunisia, with the rare legitimacy acquired from decades of torture, imprisonment, and exile. No one had suffered more. Even if society hadn’t yet been Islamized, Ennahda stood out from a crowded field of dozens of parties, many of whom employed an elitist discourse and lacked a coherent ideology.

Another explanation, however, was more controversial: even five decades of secularization weren’t enough to limit the appeal of political Islam. Once the Ben Ali regime was removed, Tunisians were able to make their own choices about religion for the first time. In the months after the revolution, the early signs of what was to come were impossible to ignore. Salafis, with their trademark thick beards, had become a visible if still small minority. The headscarf, along with the more conservative abaya, could also be seen in growing numbers. Women protested for the right to wear the niqab—showing only their eyes and nothing else—at universities. Religious charities and organizations proliferated. Mosques became centers of social change as well as a prize to be fought for between competing visions of Islamism.

Caught up in a groundswell of support and Islamic sentiment, and with Tunisians hoping for a fundamental break from the old, secular regime, Ennahda found itself by far the most popular, best organized political party in the country. Before the October 2011 elections, there was some debate within Ennahda over the dangers of winning by too much, too soon. Mere months after a revolution, it would have been difficult to lose on purpose—and explain that to an excited base. As Ennahda’s Noureddin Bhiri, then the Minister of Justice, put it to me, “we can’t call on people not to vote for us. There is no party that does this.” He had a point. But, as in Egypt, there were other fears shaping Islamist behavior—that democratic gains were far from secure; that the old regime was preparing its return. There were hardline secularists who would seek to limit the power of Islamists and even turn again to repression if they had the opportunity. Before the uprisings, losing was the best means of survival. Now it was winning. If anyone else found their way to power, then there was simply no guarantee of what might happen.

As they saw it, Islamists’ fears were soon confirmed. They saw a secular opposition that would stop at nothing to destroy them. In the tense, difficult months of early 2013, Ennahda leaders were blamed for the assassination of Chokri Belaid. They were accused of being little more than Salafis in disguise, smarter and more cunning, perhaps, but with the same ultimate, obscurantist goals. Shortly after the shocking murder of Belaid, tens of thousands took to the streets, and the trade union UGTT announced its first general strike in 34 years. Beji Caid Essebsi, the former prime minister and leader of the opposition, suggested dissolving the country’s first democratically elected parliament. Ennahda felt that this was all a bit much for an assassination that it had nothing to do with. In July 2013, a second leftist politician, Mohamed al-Brahmi, was assassinated, sparking Tunisia’s most serious political crisis yet. This time, the calls for dissolving either parliament or the government, or both, became the demand of most of the secular opposition. Meanwhile, drawing inspiration from the Tamarod movement, which helped topple President Mohamed Morsi, Tunisia’s own “Tamarod” called for Egypt-style mass protests to bring down the government. The also similarly named Salvation Front announced the campaign “Irhal”—meaning “leave” in Arabic—with the goal of sacking local and national officials appointed by Ennahda.

A Clash of Cultures

If there was anywhere that the Arab uprisings might be expected to succeed, it was in Tunisia, a country that had any number of things going for it. By the region’s standards, it had relatively low levels of income inequality, high educational attainment and literacy, a sizable middle class, and a homogenous population. The country could also claim what was arguably the most moderate Islamist party in the region, Ennahda. While the group had suffered untold persecution at the hands of the authorities, many of its leading figures—including Rachid Ghannouchi—had managed to escape and set up shop in Europe, allowing them the space and time to develop their ideas and strategy in a way their Egyptian counterparts never did.

Upon returning to Tunisia, Ghannouchi and other senior officials went out of their way to strike a note of conciliation and cooperation with secular parties. In an unprecedented move, Ennahda joined forces with Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR) to form a coalition government of Islamists, liberals, and leftists. Despite the large gap between themselves and Ennahda, CPR and Ettakatol were given veto powers over major as well as lesser appointments.

Ennahda also backed down on three controversial clauses in the draft constitution—on sharia, gender quality, and blasphemy—after encountering opposition from civil society and the secular opposition. Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc had proposed including sharia as a “source among sources [of legislation]” in the constitution. By the standards of most Arab countries, this would be considered fairly innocuous. An Islamist party, by definition, is one that believes that sharia has an important role to play in public and political life, yet here was Ennahda accepting a constitution without even a mention of sharia, despite the fact that it was by far the largest party in the country. Conservatives in Ennahda as well as many Salafis had voted for the party because they hoped it would enact “Islamic” policies and stand up for sharia. Not surprisingly, then, Ennahda found itself doing a delicate balancing act, taking care to avoid overreach while trying to reassure impatient supporters that the Islamization they were hoping for would require time and patience.

But what Ennahda did in power mattered less than who and what it was. And there was little doubt: Ennahda, for all its moderation, was still an Islamist party. Its leaders, despite their otherwise impressive efforts to stay on message, would routinely say things that sounded alarming to secularists, such as when Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali called for a sixth caliphate or when Ghannouchi, in a seeming fit of anger, said that a journalist who had accused an Ennahda cabinet minister of adultery should be flogged.

In the most obvious respects, polarization in Tunisia wasn’t as bad as it was in some other countries, including Egypt. Few thought civil war or a military coup against the Islamist-led government was likely. But, in some ways, it was worse, or at least more intractable. In Tunisia, there are hardline secularists—so-called laïcistes—who have no real corollary in the rest of the region. Inspired by French-style laïcité, they oppose even a hint of Islam in public life, believing instead that religion should be restricted to matters of personal belief and conscience. From their perspective, laïcistes are right to be concerned. Islamists in Tunisia may be more constrained, considering the country’s secular traditions. However, that also means that there is greater room for society to change in fundamental ways. In this sense, Tunisia is indeed a “laboratory” of sorts. Some Tunisian secularists insist that the nature of Tunisians is inclined toward liberalism. Tunisian Islamists argue that their nature is inclined toward Islamism.

Despite seemingly lower levels of polarization, then, more—potentially much more—is at stake in Tunisia. In other transitions, the changes were considerable, of course, but they were of a fundamentally different nature. The 2003 German movie Goodbye Lenin amusingly dramatizes the plight of a mother who falls into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she awakes, the doctor tells her son that major shocks might destroy her health. The son dutifully recreates the old world and limits her exposure to a new, frightening reality of capitalism and Coca-Cola billboards. The shift from socialism to the free market, whether in Eastern Europe, Latin America, or Asia, was nothing short of a transformation, but the changes under way did not in any way limit personal freedom, but rather the opposite. In Tunisia, moving from the quasi-totalitarianism of Ben Ali to something resembling democracy meant more freedom, but there was the open question of what Tunisians would choose to do with that freedom. The gradual Islamization of society— one of the primary objectives of any Islamist movement— could be made possible only if there was, first, a sufficient degree of freedom to operate, to preach, and to practice politics. Islamization required freedom.

The fact that Islamization hadn’t happened yet meant that Islamists in Tunisia would have a different focus than their counterparts elsewhere. It made little sense to prioritize Islamic law when the population wasn’t “ready.” Islamist movements like the Brotherhood and Ennahda believed in gradualism, that before changes happened at the level of the state, they needed first to take hold in the hearts of individuals. This is why in Egypt and Jordan, Islamists had spent decades focusing on religious education and preaching: before calling for the implementation of sharia, you needed a large enough constituency willing to support and advocate for it.

In Tunisia, Ennahda quickly found that, despite their dominant electoral position, secular parties and a vibrant civil society would push back at any perceived attempts at Islamization, particularly when it came to the constitution. The three draft clauses in question, although mild by the region’s standards, provoked a firestorm of opposition, and Ennahda was forced to backtrack. Yet, despite its care to avoid overreaching, the party was accused, all the same, of harboring a radical agenda. As the prominent secular intellectual Neila Sellini told me, “we know them. We live with them. You don’t really know what they’re about. You fall for the double discourse!” By “you,” she meant Western researchers and policymakers, and she had a point: the West wanted Ghannouchi to be more moderate than he actually was.

Ghannouchi and the leaders of Ennahda were being pragmatic. They knew full well the domestic and international constraints that were waiting for them every step of the way. Putting sharia in the constitution would only serve to politicize something that they hoped would, in time, become the heritage of all Tunisians. To what extent, then, was Ennahda’s much remarked-on moderation a product of a genuine ideological shift, or was it a tactical accommodation with reality? Was it both? Did it even matter?

At the start of Tunisia’s transition, it seemed like an “Islamic state,” or anything resembling it, was as far away as ever. Politics was the art of the possible, and so little of what Islamists wanted—and have wanted for decades—seemed possible considering the constraints. This is why the majority of Salafis refused to enter the electoral process. As a leading Salafi preacher in the town of Bizerte explained it to me: “In politics, we would be required to make concessions on the fundamental principles we believe in. You can’t be who you are. But it’s the very fact that we haven’t changed, regardless of the circumstances, that has led people to embrace us.” Indeed, nothing about the constitution or the country’s institutions suggested a bright future for the Islamization of the state or its constituent bodies. But that it wasn’t possible now was precisely what worried secularists: what if it became possible later?

It was here that the far left and the far right converged, one in despair and the other in hope. They both saw the possibility that Tunisian society could be reordered. The former feared it; Salafis, meanwhile, anticipated it with a sense of assuredness. They could wait. As we finished the interview, the Salafi preacher laughed: “Ennahda believe in sharia even if they don’t always admit it. What the secularists say is right!” The joke, while amusing, pointed to a darker undercurrent in Tunisia’s democratic transition. Perhaps the real ideological battles were still to come.

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