Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

Ennahda: A Party in Transition

[Members of Ennahda hold a press conference in Tunisia, with their leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, in the center. Image by Monia Ghanmi/Magharebia.] [Members of Ennahda hold a press conference in Tunisia, with their leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, in the center. Image by Monia Ghanmi/Magharebia.]

Since the assassination of Chokri Belaid, Tunisia is living the most difficult stage of its revolutionary transition. Even before the murder of Belaid, a long institutional crisis had kept the country in limbo with the prolonged absence of a constitution. Belaid’s death pushed it on the edge of chaos. Much has been written about the context within which the assassination took place, with the secular-leftist camp openly accusing the Islamist party, Ennahda, of having provided the ideological and political context for it. In order to bring the country back from the brink of a potential explosion of violence, on the night of the assassination, Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali offered to dismiss his cabinet and replace it with a national unity government. The creation of a government of technocrats that all political groups could support was Jebali’s attempt at “saving the country.” For Jebali, this provided the impetus for placing national interests before the partisan ones and getting the transition going again. However, his initiative failed because the majority of his own party, Ennahda, openly disavowed him and his proposal. Ultimately, Jebali resigned his position and a new “political” government headed by another prominent member of Ennahda, Ali Laarayedh, became prime minister with the support of, more or less, the previous ruling coalition. One of the significant outcomes of these events has been the very public exposure of the internal rifts within Ennahda (Blaise, 2013), leading to a renewed interest in the internal politics of the party. Two questions today characterize debates about the Tunisian transition: what exactly is Ennahda today and in which direction is it going?

There are two broad readings of the Islamist party today.  The first, mostly supported in the secular camp, is that Ennahda is still a traditional Islamic party whose ultimate goal is the creation of an Islamic state. The difference between Ennahda and the Salafists therefore is purely tactical and relates to the difference in tools and mechanisms used to reach the goal. Accordingly, Ghannouchi is the most ambiguous Islamist, employing “double speak.” He pretends to subscribe to democracy but practices exclusion and authoritarianism. The time the party is spending in power has the only objective of fully occupying the most significant institutional posts within the state apparatus until it is ready to fully take-over the country and “Islamize” it. In this context, the refusal of the majority of the party to support Jebali’s initiative is interpreted either as the absolute unwillingness to give up power on the part of Ennahda or as a “show” for public consumption.

The second reading, coming from political and intellectual circles close to the government, argues that Ennahda is a genuine reformist party. The evidence is in the fact that it has formed a transitional government with liberal and secular parties, and is committed to democratic mechanisms. Thus, according to this second reading, Ennahda is a victim of the unwillingness on of part society, concentrated in the bourgeois francophone neighborhoods, to accept that Islamist political representation is strong in Tunisia. As a result, these sectors of society, in alliance with moneyed members of the old regime, media, and links to the security apparatus, created Nida Tounes, which is nothing but a counter-revolutionary move made to prevent achieving the goals of the revolution and eliminate the Islamists, just like in the Algerian scenario of the 1990s.

These two conflicting analyses represent a significant political obstacle to the success of the transition to democracy because they fundamentally differ on the democratic credibility of one of the major actors involved in the process. In reality, Ennahda is not necessarily an Islamist party in the classic Ikhwan tradition with an unshakeable commitment to the creation of an Islamic state. At the same time, the leftist secular camp in opposition is not simply an amalgam of bourgeois elites and old regime nostalgics.

What we offer in this article is an analysis of Ennahda that looks at the party’s choices, strategies, and decisions through the everyday praxis of political and institutional engagement, which constrain it and influence its theoretical ideological tenets. The difficulty of observers in understanding Ennahda is due more to the unclear theoretical configuration of the Nahdaoui Islamic project during these volatile times of transition, rather than to a cold Machiavellic strategy whereby the real objective of creating an Islamic state is hidden from public opinion. Thus, the fact that activists and leaders still talk about an Islamic project between them and with other Islamists does not necessarily contradict their support for the instauration of a democratic and pluralistic Tunisia. The real problem lies in the fact that there is a high degree of internal confusion due to the push-pull effect that characterize ideological discussions within the party. In many ways, accepting democracy does not mean giving up on the Islamic project, but having an Islamic project does not automatically mean the establishment of an Islamic state. What outsiders often see as wilful ambiguity might instead be confusion dictated by necessity. For example, when Ghannouchi talked about the Islamic project with Salafists, as shown in a video circulated on social networks, the latter have a precise understanding of what that project is, but for Ghannouchi himself and for the party, the Islamic project today is not necessarily about the Islamic state. In order to keep the party together, mobilize activists, and gain a degree of trust from Salafists he wants to integrate in the political system, Ghannouchi has to keep talking about the Islamic project. However, the praxis imposing itself on the party is rapidly changing the way in which this project is understood and is coming about. Under pressure from more radical Islamists (Salafists), anti-Islamists (the modernists), and the liberal Islamic tendency embodied by Mourou, the party is finding it difficult to articulate clear ideological positions. Additionally, the experience of governing is making this articulation even more complicated, causing the idea of the Islamic project to evolve and develop in a context where external factors of pressure are prominent.

There is no doubt that Ennahda is a classic Islamic party and, therefore, its leftists and secular critics are quite correct in identifying it as such. The party today is the product of a long ideological and theoretical evolution that represents an attempt to make sense of the way they should live in modernity, both individually and collectively, in society. The appropriation of Islamic concepts and symbols was instrumental to this end, leading to the configuration of a political Islam. Islamists think of Islam as a whole, not distinguishing between dawa (preaching) and politics and, crucially, between the Islamization of society and the taking of power. The final goal in any case is the creation of an Islamic state. How can such a holistic vision of the world be applied in a modern society where acceptance of pluralism is a basic rule and where common and shared values are based on citizenship and not religious creed?

When we talk about the evolution of the Ikhwan parties - and Ennahda is one - the focus has to be on this main issue. Parties from the Muslim Brotherhood ideological and conceptual family are considered compatible with a modern democratic political system only when they have fully accepted citizenship instead of the Muslim-dhimmiun dichotomy, the nation-state instead of the Caliphate, and pluralism instead of Islamic communitarianism. According to a number of scholars (Allani, 2009; Torelli, 2012), these conceptual transformations have been integrated in Ennahda party largely because the party’s president, Ghannouchi, is considered one of the most prominent protagonists of this reformism. Thus, the party in this respect does not find it difficult to espouse the rhetoric of democracy, pluralism, rights, Tunisian nationalism, and equality. However, doubts remain about the sincerity of this rhetoric and, therefore, the effective credibility of the party.

Interestingly, Zyad Krishen, director of al-Maghreb, the most popular liberal Tunisian newspaper and a former member of the Islamic movement, told us the following: “Ghannouchi and the Ennahda leadership, despite the theoretical evolution, remain Ikhwani in their minds.” In other words, the transformation of the nahdhaoui militants from dawa (preaching) to running the state (dawla) is not only a matter of practicing and accepting democracy in theory, but it is also a matter of considering yourself as being a “normal” party with civic and even partisan preoccupations. This can also be done without the mythology of the jamaa and still thinking that Islam and Islamization of society can be a final goal of some sort no matter how far into the future. Pluralism in society is not temporary; believing that it will disappear to allow for the creation of an Islamic state with the consensus of every single Tunisian is counter-productive for society as whole, particularly when the construction of a new political system is at stake.  

When this is taken into account, the way Ennahda is normatively appraised becomes more complex and the confusion within the party more understandable. What becomes apparent is that both previous readings carry a degree of validity without speaking to each other. The hostility of the secular part of society is in part well-founded because, despite all the declarations coming from eminent leaders of the party, Ghannouchi and the leadership remain fundamentally Islamist in the sense of their ultimate belief in the validity of the Islamic project. Ennahda, on its part, has effectively become a moderate conservative party committed to democracy and pluralism, changing, at the same time, the nature of what the Islamic project actually is. It is quite correct in arguing that the secular left needs to come to terms with the fact that a religiously oriented party can be dominant in Tunisia. What is interesting to note is that this particular intellectual debate is heavily influenced by an everyday reality that constrains Ennahda and other political actors in the system. It follows that the different manners through which the party is understood from a theoretical point needs to be integrated with the everyday reality that shapes the party’s decisions and explains its internal divisions and confusion. This is not only a post-revolutionary phenomenon, but has characterized the party for some time.

Despite a considerable degree of consensus about the principles of democracy, pluralism, and human rights that the party rhetorically subscribed to since the 1980s, and in particular, since the 2000s, had seen the emergence of two rather distinct groups within the leadership: the ones living in exile, and the ones who had stayed behind in Tunisia. Both groups accepted that democracy and human rights should be the keywords to create cross-ideological alliances and to oppose the regime. Thus, the party’s inclusion in the Democratic Front (the so-called October 18 Collectif) was not particularly problematic. However, and this is the divisive element, the two groups lived the practical everyday experiences of political and social engagement very differently.

The leadership in exile operated as an intellectual hub and a lobbying group. On the intellectual front, Rachid Ghannouchi remained a central thinker within international Islamist circles attempting to reconcile their religious principles with a workable democratic system in a plural society. On the lobbying front, a number of members attempted to influence the US, European, and Arab countries with regard to the appeasing role that moderate Islamist movements like Ennahda could have if authoritarian regimes in the Arab world were to fall. This lobbying effort paid off in some ways after the revolution when the party was quickly recognized as a legitimate interlocutor by the international community. In addition to a different practice of politics based on an Anglo-Saxon style of lobbying through research institutes and personal networking, the leadership in exile also had considerably different lifestyles and material conditions compared to the ones who had stayed behind (Interview with Mohammed Ghoumani, leader of a progressive Islamist party and former member of the original jamaa).

The leadership of the interior experienced a different praxis of politics and lifestyle. Crucially, those who remained in Tunisia spent significant amounts of time in prison. This is the case Ali Laarayedh, Hammadi Jebali, Samir Dilou, Ajmi Lourimi, Abtellatif Mekki, and Noureddine Bhiri. As they were being progressively released from the 1999 and onwards, they established networks of support for the liberated prisoners and their families. In terms of political engagement, they began to be somewhat active in associations such as the League of Human Rights, the Association internationale de solidarité avec les prisonniers politiques (AISPP), and Liberty and Equity, where they elaborated a vision of basic freedoms and democracy that they shared with their leftist and secular counterparts (Larbi Chouika and Eric Gobe, “Les organisations de défense des droits de l’Homme dans la formule politique tunisienne : acteurs de l’opposition ou faire-valoir du régime ?").

The two groups were not entirely separated and the local leadership remained connected with the leadership in exile. The choice of participating in the creation of the Democratic Front was a common strategic one that both groups sanctioned. Thus, the ideological and theoretical journey of the party was a shared one, but the practice of the two groups’ politics was different because they operated in radically diverse environments. This would prove to have consequences after the revolution, following the party’s return to the Tunisian political scene.

After the revolution, the party had two main preoccupations. First, there was the necessity to revive the organisational structure of the party by merging the different experiences that militants had over the last three decades. Second, there was the imperative of re-elaborating the ideological tenets of the party within the framework of Islamism to compete in the newly plural system. These two necessities create a number of problems for the party. At the organizational level, differences begin to appear between the pragmatic wing that is mostly identified with the leadership of the interior and the more militant one identified with the leadership of the exterior. It is, however, at the ideological level that confusion seems to reign supreme because there are different constraints on the party. At the pragmatic level, the party still needs to be perceived as the representative of the Islamic project in order to attract the more conservative elements in Tunisian society. However, this Islamic project is, at the same time, in need of profound modernization in order to win over the suspicions of the secular sectors of society and to reflect the ideological journey the party travelled when it did not have to compete for meaningful office. The lack of clarity as to what the Islamic project actually is then becomes unsatisfactory to both actors within and outside the party because ambiguity leads to radically different interpretations. In this sense ambiguity might reflect the difficulty of managing the complexity of what this momentous moment for Tunisia represents. Thus, for many within the party, the Islamic project still coincides with the creation of an Islamic state at some stage down the line and their political actions reflect this vision. For others, the Islamic project has mutated into the creation of a civil state that is Islamic only in so far as there are no barriers to public displays of religiosity as in Ben Ali’s times and Islam can legitimately occupy social space. For many outside the party, the Islamic project is equivalent to an Islamic theocracy, which in turn leads Ghannouchi to argue that there are counter-revolutionary forces that deliberately misrepresent Ennahda in order to eliminate Islamists from the transitional game, failing to realize that the preoccupation might be genuine. From this, it is no surprise that the party’s ninth congress in July 2012, the first one held in Tunisia, was nothing but a “big show,” intended for self-glorification. The absence of meaningful theoretical and ideological discussions as to what the Islamic project exactly is a testament to the unwillingness and inability to come to a consensus about it for fear that deep divisions would emerge.

The party has since been forced to better elaborate its political categories because of the presence of other actors on the political scene that use religiously-inspired political terminology to attract support and challenge Ennahda’s monopoly on Islamism in Tunisia. How does the party manage these social and political alternatives while maintaining the same language?

The emergence of a varied Salafist camp in Tunisia represents a challenge to Ennahda in so far as it is no longer the only religiously oriented actor in the system and its Salafist rivals present a different Islamic vision. The two fundamental points that sparked an intense political debate within Ennahda have to do with the use of sharia law as a source of legislation and with jihadism. The wider Salafist mouvance mobilized strongly on the issue of sharia law. Through their presence in society, thanks to mosque-related networks and associations, significant pressure was placed on Ennahda to include references of sharia in the constitution. Given the uncertain contours of the Islamic project for Ennahda this proved to be a divisive issue within the party. For some, references to sharia were obvious because they were a necessary element of the Islamic project and demands for its inclusion came from sectors of society. For others, the Islamic project at this point in time should not prioritize the issue of sharia, which should appear only in terms of personal foundational values. Despite the pressure, the party decided not to refer to sharia in the draft constitution, although one in five members of the hayat  a-taassysyyai voted in favor of the reference’s inclusion. In any case, this issue added further internal confusion regarding what is actually Islamic about the party. From the outside, this decision is simply understood as tactical with no real commitment to stick to it in the future.

If the struggle over the reference to sharia law was a significant divisive moment, the jihadi camp’s strength came as an even stronger challenge. The Jihadi camp is becoming quite attractive to a number of young people who wish to be politically engaged: Ennahda has a complex relationship with it and with Salafism more generally. The violent tendencies of the jihadis triggered a crackdown from the Ennahda-led government, but the repressive strategy has been supplemented by an attempt to de-radicalise the jihadi youth through the services of scripturalist Salafist sheikhs, like Bachir Ben Hassen, who started a campaign whose aim is to “rescue” young jihadis from radical ideologies (Akhar Akhbar, n. 34, 12 March 2013, p.12). While such clerics appeared to be “servants” of Ennahda in the eyes of the young jihadists, it also is an admission that the nahdhaoui Islamic approach is no longer attractive to many young Tunisians.

These young Islamists tend to see the party as an opportunistic group of people taking advantage of Islam to get power. There is no doubt that the Salafist challenge is important for the evolution of the party and that it constitutes a preoccupation for the leadership because it forces Ennahda to clarify what the exact content of its Islamic project is, reviving therefore internal tensions because clarification could lead to splits. While the Salafists, on the other hand, know what their ideal Islamic state looks like.

In some ways there is an opposing pressure on the party coming from those who can be labelled Islamist progressives. The principal figure within the party is Abdelfattah Mourou, and Saladdin Jorchi outside of it. Their framework of reference is the Islamic reformism heir to the Zitouna’s tradition and this is fully compatible with the rhetorical subscription of the party as a whole to the principles of social pluralism, democracy, non-violence, and human rights. The emphasis is therefore on the local Tunisian school of thought about the relationship between religion and politics, which is a fair distance away from the debates taking place in the rest of the Arab world. Thus, in principle, the Islamist progressives should not be out of kilter with the rest of the party. However, they believe they are, precisely because they do not see the practical application in everyday politics of the principles the party has embraced rhetorically. A growing “lobbying” effort is emerging both inside and outside the party attempting to bring the leaders around the necessity of taking firmer step towards the concrete practice of the reformist Islamic project that has been accepted at the ideational level. Individuals like Ajmi Lourimi inside the party and Sami Braham outside of it best represent this effort. According to them, this is due to the lack of clarity about what the Islamic project for a party like Ennahda, operating in the Tunisian reality, is about. The problem however is that requiring such clarity through internal discussion is what Ghannouchi and others wish to avoid for the moment because it would force them to straitjacket the project with the risk of splitting the party at such a crucial time. In this respect, it is not surprising that Mourou, who is trying to push the leadership toward reformism, tried to exploit the Jebali’s initiative by calling for a new congress. It is also unsurprising that he did not succeed: clarification might lead to divergence. Ghannouchi, according to Hammida Enneifer (Interview with authors, president of an association of progressive Islamist intellectuals), “is the leader of a party, and therefore he is logically concerned with its survival.”  

On the background of these debates, everyday political life continues and places pressure on the ability of the party, which had traditionally been able to merge different intellectual positions and reach a consensus to hide its internal rifts The diverging experiences following the repression of the 1990s have not undermined the unity of the party per se, but have made internal politics more difficult. Additionally, the government’s experience in a transitional society has further strained the relations between the different intellectual traditions that had previously coexisted. The leadership of the interior embodied in people like Ali Laridhi and Hammadi Jebali are the symbols of a generation of Ennahda politicians in the truest sense of the word. They were engaged in the difficult times of the 2000s when it came to the maintenance of a resemblance of party structures and were involved in the daily “politicking” with other opposition groups. It is not a coincidence that it is this generation of pragmatists who are leading the party in its experience of government today. This group began the reorganization of the structure just before the revolution and they were also the ones that dealt with the rest of the Democratic Front (18 October). Few people in the party had their experience and knowledge of the country, unlike the group in exile. Today they form a specific group inside the party that, although cannot be labelled a political current, is recognizable for its pragmatism and “ideological lightness.” In short, they are a group of political managers with a sense of politics, which looks to the profane democratic praxis of power rather than the Ikhwani application of Islamic political mythology. The Jebali initiative after Chokri Belaid’s assassination is more understandable in this framework because Jebali was fulfilling his role of national leader at a time of dramatic events for the country. Within the party, however, there is also a different group with a radically different experience of politics, which has been forged outside Tunisia and heavily influenced by the international dimension. Ghannouchi and a number of party’s leaders believed that the Jebali initiative constituted an existential threat for Ennahda. As published on the independent Ayn magazine (Ayn, n. 28, 5-13 March 2013) a new version of the events related to Chokri Belaid’s death argues that circles around and inside the party considered that behind Jebali’s initiative, there was a planned action among groups linked to the former regime attempting a coup d’etat en douceur to get the Islamists out of power.

The latest institutional crisis does not necessarily prove the wilful ambiguous nature the Islamic party, as many observers suggest. A thorough analysis of the internal politics of the party reveals instead that the ambiguity is the outcome of unresolved ideological discussions preventing clarity about the meaning of the Islamic project. Rather than being an instrumental device aimed at “tricking” the electorate and the other political actors, this lack of clarity seems to be the product of genuine differences about what the party stands for and where it is going. Such differences existed before coming to power as well, but the necessity to face authoritarianism forced unity. At a time when the party is operating in a pluralistic environment and where it also has governmental responsibilities, these differences are more evident. As long as Ghannouchi is there, the organizational unity is likely to remain, but the erratic stances of the party are likely to increase. These discussions will then be settled at the next Congress. In the meantime, the country is in transition and the party, too. 

[The authors are grateful to the Gerda Henkel Foundation for funding our research in Tunisia in the context of the project “From over-estimation to under-estimation: the trajectory of Political Islam in five MENA countries.”]

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T