Hazem Al Amin

Tunisia: Torn between
Islamists and secularists

Tunisians prepare for a new round of post-revolution elections contested between the Islamist Ennahda Movement and the secularist Nidaa Tounes.

Ennahda supporters gather for a rally in Tunis on Friday. (AFP/Fadel Senna)

TUNISIA - Between now and the end of the year Tunisia will vote three times. The first round of voting, this Sunday, will bring in a new parliament; the second, after around a month, is the first round of presidential elections, and the third, a few days later, is the second round of presidential elections. It is natural, in light of the country’s sharply divided political scene, that all of Tunisia should be fixated on these successive dates. The two poles of Tunisian politics are represented by the Islamist Ennahda Movement (the Muslim Brotherhood) and Nidaa Tounes, a large political coalition comprising of secular political elites, politicians and technocrats.


The new element on the electoral scene is the widespread appearance of businessmen in the legislative and presidential elections, whether running themselves or supporting lists and candidates. Most prominent among them is Slim Riahi, who some here in Tunisia call the “Tunisian Hariri.”


In a number of areas Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes have also sought to recruit businessmen to their lists, and now they lead the lists of the two competing camps. This phenomenon has arisen as Tunisia is passing through a tight economic bottleneck that is easily felt on a quick visit to the capital. The deterioration of services and the decline in the performance of public and private institutions make it unmistakable. This can only increase the good fortunes of the businessmen.


The Ennahda movement seems to have regrouped and roused its support base in preparation for the elections. This is in spite of the large setbacks it suffered after taking power in Tunisia’s first general elections, after which it gave way to a technocratic government a few months ago following popular pressure and country-wide demonstrations. The current government’s failure to champion a number of vital dossiers has worked in the Islamist movement’s favor. Tunisians, who had assumed Ennahda would lose the elections, now expect hot competition between it and Nidaa Tounes. Moreover, Ennahda is expected to have the advantage due to its organizational ability and the influence it still has in inland areas of the country and the capital’s poorer suburbs.


The truth is that Ennahda has taken its pragmatism to the extreme. Its smooth transition from calling for women to “complement the work of men” to calling for complete equality between men and women has been completed through other activities. The party has made an effort to portray itself as being open to all civil and secular tendencies through activities like holding receptions for Tunisian artists known to oppose Islamism and moving female candidates to the top of its electoral lists. At the same time, party lists have left out certain influential and conservative figures, such as Habib al-Lawz and Sadeq Shouro, who would have been a large provocation to non-Islamists had they run.


Ennahda, it seems, has two narratives. The first, which is aimed at Tunisians in general, implies a desire for openness and suggests that the party has learnt from the failed experiences of Muslim Brotherhood rule. The second, which is aimed at the party’s traditional support base, makes entirely different promises. This may have caused enthusiasm for voting to drop among members of the second group.


As for Nidaa Tounes, its chances are equal to Ennahda’s, especially as it enjoys a large amount of influence in the middle and upper classes. The coalition also has a stronger media presence, which may make up for the organizational shortcomings its recent formation has brought.


The results of the parliamentary elections will cast their shadow on the presidential elections. If Ennahda leads, the identity of the president will be dictated by the alliances the party presumably needs to return to power. This explains why it has not fielded a candidate for the presidency; the post will be a prize for its allies in the government. As for Nidaa Tounes, it has fielded former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, which means that it too is willing to enter a partnership if it comes in second. However, if it comes in first we will see a different Tunisia from the one of the past three years.


This article is a translation of the original, which appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper.

Ennahda supporters gather for a rally in Tunis on Friday. (AFP/Fadel Senna)

The truth is that Ennahda has taken its pragmatism to the extreme.