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Middle East and Africa

The Defeated Islamists Ready for a Pact with the Enemy

Not humiliated, but defeated: the Islamists are the losers of the Tunisian elections but they are ready to remain on stage even at the cost of alliances with their antagonists of the electoral campaign (Nidaa Tunis) who won by presenting themselves as being ‘against’ political Islam. The stability of the country is at stake.

After the parliamentary elections of 26 October of this year, the stability and the governability of Tunisia may pass by way of the narrow road of an unnatural alliance between enemies: Nidaa Tunis, an aggregate of people and ideas of various outlooks won with 85 seats out of a total of 217 at stake, whereas the Islamists of an-Nahda did not go beyond 69 seats. The remaining 63 seats were allocated to the liberal Free Patriotic Union; the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties and associations; and a myriad of smaller parties. Overall, 19 political formations will enter the new parliament of Tunisia.

 

In addition to the absence of a clear majority and the presence of an extreme party fragmentation, the most significant element of these facts is without doubt the defeat of an-Nahda, whose failure probably goes deeper than these numbers suggest.

 

 

During the long post-revolutionary transition (2011-2014), an-Nahda, indeed, had presented itself as the force that was naturally entrusted with leading change in the country because of its profound harmony with the Arab-Muslim identity of the Tunisian people. For Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the party, an Islamic awakening, political reform and the establishment of democracy against authoritarianism constituted three aspects of a single process. This understanding found apparent confirmation in the elections for the Constituent Assembly of 2011 when an-Nahda won a notable plurality (37%) and as a result then obtained the leadership of two coalition governments. But today this has been unequivocally contradicted by the triumph of Nidaa Tunis, a very heterogeneous party that is kept together by tenacious opposition to Islamist projects and by reference to the political and cultural heritage of President Bourguiba – something that an-Nahda has always rejected. This has not been so much a victory of secularity over Islam as a repudiation of the management of power by an-Nahda and its allies (the so-called ‘Troika’) which, in addition to imposing a tiring debate about the identity of the country and its political-juridical implications, knowingly gave ample margin for manoeuvre to the Salafi organisations and their violence. The results hovered between the disappointing (a political-institutional state of stall, a difficult economic situation, unemployment) and the catastrophic (two political murders in a climate of widespread insecurity).

 

 

But Ghannouchi had the lucidity to impede the social and political fracture of Tunisia from becoming tragically irremediable. In giving way to the pressure of the opposition and a well-organised civil society and put on its guard by the events in Egypt, an-Nahda agreed in October 2013 to set in motion a ‘national dialogue’ and established with the other political and social forces a pathway to move out of the crisis in four stages: the formation of a caretaker government; the creation of a new Constitution; political elections; and presidential elections (envisaged for 23 November of this year).

 

 

During the electoral campaign the Islamists used this turning point to renew the image of their own party, camouflaging their failure as a demonstration of responsibility and concentrating their political communication on the subjects of economic growth and security against terrorism. Meanwhile, the new watchwords of Ghannouchi became tawâfuq (consensus) and ‘national unity’, repeated ad nauseam to prepare for the post-electoral period ahead of time and the formation of new alliances.

 

The conciliatory style of the electoral campaign and the almost immediate recognition of the success of their adversary by the leaders of an-Nahda could thus seem the point of arrival of the long passage of the movement of Ghannouchi from a militant and anti-system Islamism to the full acceptance of parliamentary democracy and its rules.

 

 

However Ghannouchi does not appear to be resigned to the definitive transformation of an-Nahda into a ‘banal’ organisation which like the other parties represents values, interests and groups in society, and which competes with the other parties for electoral support. This is demonstrated by his speech of 27 October of this year which was given to the nahdawi militant. In this speech the Islamist ideologue and leader presented the political defeat at the elections as a ‘divine’ victory. He did this quoting the first verses of sura 48 of the Qur’an entitled ‘Victory’. (‘Surely we have given thee a manifest victory, that God may forgive thee thy former and thy latter sins, and complete His blessing upon thee, and guide thee on a straight path’). These verses refer to the so-called Pact of Hudaybiyya (which was explicitly cited by Ghannouchi) and which Mohammed signed in 628 with the pagan tribes of Mecca. Designed to allow the first Muslims to go on pilgrimages without being harmed to ka‘ba, this armistice had a fundamental strategic importance because it allowed the political and religious consolidation of the umma and prepared the ground for the final conquest of Mecca.

 

 

Read in the light of this episode in Islamic history, the halt of an-Nahda and its readiness to cooperate with the ‘pagans’ of Nidaa Tunis would be nothing else but a temporary parenthesis before the final triumph. Obviously one can choose not to give too much weight to the words of Ghannouchi who, for that matter, is known for these connections of political current affairs with the history of Islam. In basic terms it is normal for a political leader to use all the rhetorical tools that his repertoire offers, and this is even more the case if he has to make his followers digest a defeat that is objectively indigestible. Ghannouchi himself, indeed, expressed himself rather differently at a press conference of 30 October in which he commented on the results of the elections, stated that he did not want a polarisation alone the lines of what had happened in Egypt, and rejected the picture of a division between secular people and Islamists, non-believers and Muslims, and between those who looked to the past and those who looked to modernity, because this could only lead to civil war.

 

 

This apparent schizophrenia is not only the expression of political manoeuvring that is careful from circumstance to circumstance to select words and gestures on the basis of the context and the interlocutor. It is above all else the result of three closely interconnected elements: the centrality of a figure such as Ghannouchi who is suspended between the role of ideologue and the role of political leader; the nature of an-Nahda which would like to continue to be at one and the same time a movement for Islamic preaching and a political party: and the aporias of an idea, summed up in the formula ‘Islamic democracy’, where the accent moves back and forth constantly between the noun and the adjective without ever finding a convincing equilibrium.

 

 

Which of the two souls will prevail also depends on the moves of Nidaa Tunis which, after the next presidential elections, will have the task of proposing a government and finding a majority which supports it in parliament. After centring its electoral campaign around going beyond Islamist obscurantism, the formation of Caid Essebsi has to decide whether to look elsewhere for allies (although this operation is far from being simple), thereby running the risk of a new explosion in the ideological war with an-Nahda, or to accept a ‘truce’ with its enemy in the name of political stability and social peace.

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