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New Texts Out Now: Rikke Hostrup Haugbolle and Francesco Cavatorta, Beyond Ghannouchi: Social Changes and Islamism in Tunisia

[Cover of [Cover of "Middle East Report" 262 (Spring 2012)]

Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle and Francesco Cavatorta, "Beyond Ghannouchi: Social Changes and Islamism in Tunisia," Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle and Francesco Cavatorta (RHH and FC): In October 2011, Tunisia had the first elections after the uprising that had led Ben Ali to flee the country. The months prior to the elections were very confusing and no one really knew whether elections would take place at all. At the same time, it was a very exciting period for the country and those like us who had been working on it. New parties were emerging, and the Islamist Ennahda, whose leaders had been in prison or in exile for decades, was one of the favorites to take first place, so we were very interested in how the situation would develop, given that new energies had been released with the revolution. Our interest was already partially on the rise of what can be called "social Islamism" in the country, and now we also had the opportunity to see an Islamist party running for office in meaningfully competitive elections. On top of that, Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi is not only a prominent politician, but also a scholar and an intellectual who began writing about Islam and democracy in the 1980s. Therefore, there was a lot of media and scholarly attention on him, understandably so. But he had not been in Tunisia for decades, and so we wanted to examine what else was out there in Tunisian society that might allow us to understand the popularity of the party.

We had been doing research on Tunisian politics and society for quite some time, and when the country opened up we jumped at the chance to finally have access to people and groups that we had not had the chance to talk to so openly and examine before the fall of Ben Ali. We had this idea that there was a linkage between the rise in personal religiosity during the 2000s among ordinary Tunisians, which had gone largely undetected in scholarship, and Ennahda’s success. This had nothing to do with the notions bandied about regarding the creation of an Islamic state because the new supporters and militants of Ennahda, or at least many of them, were shaped by the socio-economic reforms of the Ben Ali period, which had profoundly changed many aspects of Tunisian society. Obviously, we wanted to follow the electoral campaign and were eager to talk to Ennahda, but we also wanted to examine where their support came from and to look at the linkage with the rise in personal piety and religiosity.

Since 2008, we had been working together on Tunisia, and we carried out our first joint research project on the relation between civil society actors and the media with a specific focus on the private radios and TV channels then emerging. While both journalists and civil activists were heavily repressed if they dared to cross the regime’s red lines, our fieldwork also demonstrated that developments were taking place which were not in line with what the literature on Tunisian authoritarianism claimed. In some ways, our work found parallels with what Laryssa Chomiak, John Entelis, and Amin Allal, among others, were doing when examining Tunisian society. They were arguing that below the state and its institutions, there was a degree of dissent being organized and there were social changes taking place that were not examined because they did not fit with the image the regime wanted to present and that were at odds with the literature on authoritarian upgrading. We thought that this was indeed the case and, in short, we wanted to see if the same logic applied to issues related to party support, to the elections in general, and to the emerging role of Islam in Tunisia after the uprising.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

RHH and FC: We were primarily interested in what long-term socio-economic changes contributed to Ennahda’s resounding electoral victory. While many expected that the party would do well at the polls, very few analysts thought it would do so well, although in a number of conversations with leading Ennahda members, with strategists of other political parties, and with civil society actors, it emerged that there was a consensus that Ennahda would indeed come quite close to taking an absolute majority, and this indeed turned out to be the case, with the party obtaining ninety seats out of 217. A lot of explanations were given at the time for Ennahda's success, ranging from the party’s shrewd campaigning to the disarray of the left and from their focus on economic matters to their legitimacy as inflexible opponents of the regime. These explanations all made sense and contain a degree of truth, but we wanted to investigate how a party that had been “disappeared” for over two decades could count on such cross-regional, cross-class, and cross-generational support in a country that was supposed to be heavily secular after decades of modernizing French-style reforms. For this purpose, we took advantage of our previous studies and wanted to include long-term socio-economic changes. This topic and how such changes influence politics is not new in comparative politics, but we wanted to apply this to an Arab country that never featured prominently in the literature on the Middle East and North Africa to demonstrate that continuity and fixity at the institutional level do not mean that profound changes are not occurring in society, with the result that when stability at the top ends, all sorts of ideological and political trends that used to be below the radar suddenly emerge out of nowhere.

A second topic of interest in our research was the wider debate between democratization and authoritarian resilience. In this debate, the role and democratic credibility of Islamist parties/movements are central, particularly when framed through the literature on Islamist moderation. Tunisia offered the possibility to focus on an Islamist party running in free and fair elections. Understanding how it managed to win and what the victory implies are issues of interest for the debate on democratization in the Arab world.  

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

RHH and FC: The article connects specifically with the research we published in the Journal of North African Studies in early 2012 on media and civil activism, which dealt with the unexpected and unintended developments that can take place within authoritarian regimes when they implement sham liberalising reforms. In the case of this Middle East Report article, we found that the liberalization of the economy during the 1990s and 2000s had created both a new upper middle class and a new “working poor” class. Sectors of both classes were respectively exposed to the hollowness of the new consumer society and left out as the losers of globalization. Both found personal solace in the private practice of Islam and the re-discovery of religion and a means to start changing social behaviour around them to create a different society through civil engagement within the limits imposed by the regime. When the free and fair elections of 2011 came around, many of these people activated themselves to support and influence the party that embodied their private ethical values so that they could be translated into social values respected at the top of the new Tunisia being created. It became obvious that the party of choice was Ennahda because it embodied ethical values that should, according to these activists, become the foundation of the new Tunisia. What is most interesting about this, however, is the actual degree of "liberalism" that many Ennahda militants and voters display when it comes to think about and legislate for individual rights and behavior. While members and activists and ordinary supporters would probably not self-describe as liberal, they do display a degree of tolerance for what they might term un-Islamic behavior.  

In addition, in the MERIP article we also relied on Rikke’s experience and fieldwork in the southern regions of Tunisia to bring in a regional dimension often missing from studies on Tunisia. The whole story could not be told by only doing fieldwork in Tunis, as different values and perspectives of identity exist in the south. What was happening on the ground far from Tunis confirmed to us that the support for Ennahda did not really have that much to do with Ghannounchi or the exiles who had returned with him, but with the changes that had occurred there over time.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RHH and FC: We had a number of audiences in mind. First, the article is directed to Western scholars of Islamism and of Islamist parties who might find it beneficial to examine Islamist movements by looking beyond their internal workings and politics usually focused on the leadership. The basic idea is to widen the conceptualization of party politics and examine how bottom-up engagement in newly reconstituted parties influences the choices of the leadership. Second, it is directed to policy-makers both in Tunisia and in the West to encourage them to look at Ennahda not as a unified movement under the tight leadership of one man, but as a movement in which many different social forces and groups come together, giving rise to different demands and visions of society although they all share the belief that proper ethical behaviour in public affairs depends on the personal ethical and religious beliefs of the individuals involved. Our objective for this constituency was to try and demonstrate the importance of engaging with Ennahda and with its different constituent groups. Finally, it is directed to Tunisians who still today do not know very much about Ennahda, who stereotype the party, and who have prejudices against it. Understanding, knowledge, and acceptance of differences is one of the main challenges to the democratization process in Tunisia, and we hope to have demonstrated that such differences do not necessarily have to be extremely divisive. This does not mean that we share the party’s beliefs and ideology on a personal level, but we would certainly have respect for the way in which they view politics.  

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RHH: I am going through my empirical data about “new expressions of Islam” from fieldwork prior to the uprising. I am turning the data into an article in which I demonstrate how very different and new actors were expressing novel ideas about the role of Islam in Tunisia. I pay special attention to senses such as sound and “seeing.” What impact did it have that people could listen to “Islam” from the recently launched Islamic Radio Zitouna? That they could see new mosques being constructed by the state in many towns? That they for the first time could hear the president speak about Islam during Ramadan? In this way, this work relates to the article, as it demonstrates that Islam was evolving in many and very different ways and that it is not sufficient to understand Islamism only as open and institutional political activism.

FC: Together with a colleague, Fabio Merone, I am examining the history, ideology, influence, and political strategies of Tunisian Salafist movements in the context of a much wider five-country research project on Islamism funded by the German Gerda Henkel Foundation. We wrote a short article for Jadaliyya in the summer on the emergence of Salafism in Tunisia, and we are now working to deepen our understanding of this phenomenon and account for the arrival of these movements on the Tunisian political scene. The central research questions are what explains their rise and how they relate to the other political actors. Specifically, we are trying to look at the ways in which Salafism can potentially help the democratic process in Tunisia by politically “activating” citizens who do not buy into the Salafist project and are quite repulsed by it. As Nadia Merzouki has said, during the Ben Ali regime, very unpalatable religion-inspired visions of society were repressed so that citizens who were not in agreement simply relied on the regime to counter them. Today, in a plural political and social system, it is up to citizens themselves to stand up for their beliefs by becoming active and transformative agents.     

J: What methodologies did you use in the writing of this article?

RHH and FC: We used the qualitative method and interviewed a significant number of actors. When it comes to Ennahda, we used the snowballing technique, meaning that we met with members who then referred us to other members and so on. We did the same for Islamist activists working in civil associations like Quranic schools. Relying on referrals worked very well because there was a degree of difficulty in identifying exactly the correct sample, but at the same time a lot of Islamist activists were very open, wanted to talk, and were very engaged with researchers who showed a genuine interest in what the party or the associations were trying to achieve, how they were structured, and what views they had about the new Tunisia. In this respect, we did interviews both in Tunis and in the south of the country in order to have a fuller picture of the ways in which different social groups influenced the party and participated in its life. This helped us demonstrate the social movement-dimension of Ennahda. As mentioned, we also interviewed members of Qur’an associations that had been present in Tunisia since the mid-2000s in order to gauge how social Islam expressed itself before the fall of the regime and to highlight that Ennahda is not the whole story of Islam in Tunisia. This has ultimately been confirmed by the rise of Salafism, which many Tunisians still today refer to as a foreign import, neglecting the fact that Salafism in its current form is very much an indigenous product. We also relied quite substantially on observations, fieldwork, and interviews and writings we have done together since 2008, and we drew on Rikke’s fieldwork experience which dates back to the late 1990s. All this enabled us to connect what was taking place in 2011 with the past in order to put the ongoing dynamics in a broader context and in the longue durée.

In many ways, our study can be interpreted as an ethnography-inspired area study meeting political science. The two of us come from different disciplines, and mixing our methodological skills has proved to be a very good and fruitful collaboration, as we see different things in the field and contribute with different takes in the writing process. In fact, we took the article in MERIP as the starting point to explore further some of the “below the radar” trends and events that characterised Ben Ali’s Tunisia and to question some of the most widely-held assumptions in both the democratization and the authoritarian resilience paradigms. This article came out in Mediterranean Politics over the summer.

J: How do you see the article feeding into the current Tunisian reality?

RHH and FC: We did the fieldwork for the article a year ago, and a lot has happened in Tunisia since then. Ennahda is leading a three-party government coalition in an increasingly difficult time for the country, particularly from a socio-economic point of view. At the time, the electoral victory of Ennahda generated both surprise and fear in the secular left wing sector of society. On the one hand, fear that Tunisia would be turned into an Iran-style Islamic state subsided somewhat over time, as Ennahda demonstrated a significant degree of political pragmatism and a clear understanding of the plural nature of Tunisian society. The surprise over the popular support Ennahda and Salafist groups enjoy, on the other hand, is still very much present and has generated a return to original Bourguibism, as the secular left feels that it is losing the intellectual influence and status it had in Tunisia before the uprising. It looks in amazement at fellow Tunisians who have such strong feelings about the public role Islam should have in Tunisia.

Another important development that we had hints of, but failed to investigate more convincingly at the time, has to do with the multiple expressions of Islamism that are now evident in the country. At the time when we did our fieldwork and wrote the article, Ennahda was the new actor that everybody was interested in. Today, it is clear that work on Islam and political participation in Tunisia would have to take Salafism into consideration, because it is in part a reaction to the secularism of Tunisian public policy under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, but also an answer to the perceived softening of Ennahda on issues that Salafists feel are crucial in building a new country, such as the application of sharia law and its enshrinement in the constitution.

Overall, despite some surprising developments that are to be expected in a volatile transition process, the article retains its validity insofar as it indicated that there was a popular demand for an engagement with Islam and politics, pointing to the problematic nature of the perception of Tunisia as a secular country.

Excerpts from “Beyond Ghannouchi: Social Changes and Islamism in Tunisia”

New Social Forces and Islamic Values

Ennahda is not a classic opposition actor, a party run from the top down that takes advantage of a sudden opening in a political system that previously was tightly controlled. It was the activism of ordinary citizens, much of it near spontaneous, that carried the party so far, so fast. Party leader Rafik Abdessalim, now minister of foreign affairs, recognizes this reality: “In 1989, many of the leaders and members went into exile, while 4,000 were in prison….Before January 2011, there were no offices, no public activities, no visible signs of Ennahda…so the structure of the party today is a product of people’s engagement. You cannot explain everything based on the organization itself and on the idea that what should be done is dictated from the top. Local people are opening local offices of Ennahda. It is not the top of the party opening these offices. It is based on people on the ground.” From this premise, it follows that Ennahda is best understood as a broad movement with multiple constituencies that broadly subscribe to an Islamic ideal, as it developed during Ben Ali’s rule but under the radar of the regime. These constituencies had few or no ties with the Ennahda of the 1980s, the outspoken Islamist movement of Rachid Ghannouchi, the historical leader who flew home from exile after Ben Ali’s dictatorship ended. They have strong feelings, however, about Ennahda as an idea of what public life and political engagement should be. The party’s political project has been, and to some extent still is, built from below as continuation of a re-Islamization of society in the 2000s. More than twenty-five years elapsed since Ennahda’s chances to operate openly arose—and the country changed dramatically in that duration.

Three phenomena are noteworthy in this respect: the emergence of a pro-market middle class at ease with much of Western modernity; the enunciation of a stronger Arab Muslim identity that deviates from the Western-inspired and particularly French-inspired project of modernization in post-independence Tunisia; and the parallel emphasis on Islam as personal piety.


Circles of Conviction

Gradually, these vectors of social change came together in an attempt to influence public life. One powerful example is the Qur’an association called Riadh Ennasr, founded in 2007 in Cité An-Nasr, a middle-class suburb north of the capital of Tunis. The six co-founders, all men under forty, lived in Cité An-Nasr but were alienated by what they felt was its hollow, consumerist culture. One of the founders explained that the spark for the association was the realization that the neighborhood “lacked values and warmth.” The local imam parroted the regime’s line and thus lacked the moral qualities that believers should expect and demand. To better themselves, and lead by example, they decided to create a space where people could meet, under the guidance of various religious scholars, to learn to read the Qur’an properly. This project reinforced their own identity as pious Muslims, but it was also social activism in the sense that they believed better training in the Qur’an would spur others to rediscover a genuine Muslim way of life and improve the neighborhood. Implicit in the association was a critique of what seemed to be the dominant values in Tunisia, namely consumerism, corruption and a more general loss of self. The founders felt that Tunisians could cultivate an identity of their own—one that combined the best of what they saw coming from the West and the best from Islam. By April 2010, 1,800 people had signed up for reading classes, 1,200 of them women.

In the battle with the regime for the soul of Tunisia, women were of course strategic terrain—with the veil or headscarf the immediate objective. A 1986 decree stated that it was forbidden to wear the veil in public. The ban was kept in force by the regime with regular campaigns directed against women who defied it. The controversy over the headscarf came to a head in 2006. That year, during Ramadan, the president and minister of religious affairs declared that the veil was out of keeping with the Tunisian cultural heritage and national identity. Police stopped veiled women in the streets and told them to bare their heads. Many women kept on wearing the headscarf, however, presenting an increasing challenge to the regime.

The women attending the Qur’an classes in Cité An-Nasr range in age from the early twenties to the sixties. Many are well educated, working as engineers, doctors or teachers. One woman, fifty-two, traced her motivation for attending the classes to practices she learned in her childhood: “My parents were practicing Muslims, so I have always heard the reading of the Qur’an and prayers in the house.” Another woman of the same age explained, “Islam was present even then [under Bourguiba]. We learned the Qur’an at home because a sheikh came to our house.” These memories recall a past when Arab Muslim identity was cherished; they also indicate that, under the radar, such practices always existed. The women felt a need to rediscover these practices to make sense of their own upbringing and identity.


The 2011 revolution has freed these social forces that challenge the myth of Tunisian laicité. An example is the Jerba Association for Solidarity and Development, which was established after the revolution by ten men and two women, many of them professionals, and all of them practicing Muslims in their forties with no experience of associational life. The founders explain that they had always talked about helping others as a duty at the core of their faith. Only after January 2011, however, did the law permit them to harness their spirit of social engagement, with a small initial budget of 24,000 Tunisian dinars (about $16,000). The group decided to use one third of the monies to help Libyans in distress during the war to topple the Qaddafi regime. One third would go to the poor during Ramadan, and the remaining third would be used to back entrepreneurs in Jerba.

Private Islamic activism has been on the rise in Tunisia for a decade, with a number of associations testing the monopoly of the regime over the public sphere and also, since the late 2000s, providing social goods. This activism was in part a response to the deterioration of welfare provisions and widespread public corruption, but, more significantly, to what Hamza Meddeb described as “the disappearance of the moral egalitarianism that the State had promoted under Bourguiba.”[1] It is the linkage between ethics and Islam as counter to the immorality of the regime that matters for the rise of private Islamic activism, while left-wing secular forces focused much more strongly on economic shortcomings as the uprising of 2008 in the Gafsa mining district indicates.[2]

While the number of active associations has grown after the revolution, the phenomenon is not a function of the fall of Ben Ali. It is characterized by an Islam that is deeply personal, centered on social activism rather than politics and dependent on local networks for support and expansion. The glue of these networks is a specific understanding and practice of Islam whereby religious precepts apply to those who choose them and are not imposed on the whole of the community. This shift in perspective has filtered up to the Ennahda leadership, which has repeated professions of tolerance incessantly since being legalized, partly to reassure secular Tunisians, but partly to reflect the views and practices of its new members and supporters. As Tirad Labbane of Riadh Ennasr said: “Our commitment to Islam does not mean that we want to impose what we do on others. In that sense, you could say that we are anti-salafi, because we do not approve of imposing behavior. If you want to wear a mini-skirt, it is not my problem; if you do not want to wear the veil, it is also not my problem. Choices have to be left to individuals; the state cannot impose behavior. From the state authorities we ask only that they let us do our work in peace.”

Filtering Up

It would be misleading to draw a solitary bright line of causality between the Qur’anic associations and the Jerba charitable society, on the one hand, and Ennahda’s electoral triumph, on the other. But there is a clear resonance between discourse and practice of the social activists and Ennahda, and membership in the two circles overlaps. The social activism was flourishing years before Ennahda was legalized and allowed to operate freely in 2011, suggesting that many party cadre and constituents come from the social activists’ ranks and brought with them the experiences and values formed under Ben Ali’s dictatorship. It follows that there are echoes of the attitudes of the Islamist sector of society in the official positions of Ennahda. The dimension of personal choice and individual piety, for instance, is notable in how Ennahda members at all levels talk. “You cannot impose Islam on people. It has to be a personal choice, to come from the heart,” explained a physician in Jerba, who supported Ennahda. At the top, Jawhara Ehiss, a member of Ennahda’s office of women’s affairs and a deputy in the Constitutional Assembly, underlines that Islam is a personal matter: “it is not the role of the state to give religious lessons and set religious rules.” In this respect, the stated interest of Ennahda coincides with that of many social activists, who simply want to be left alone by the state to pursue their task as they see fit. It is largely these younger middle-class activists, together with the older generation of militants returning from exile and coming out of prison, who have swollen the ranks of Ennahda and contributed to its success. Their rallying to Ennahda is not necessarily based on the party’s policy statements or past record or Ghannouchi’s leadership, but on the assumption that it is the closest political actor to their beliefs.


[1] Hamza Meddeb, “La course à el khobza,” La Revue Economia 13 (November 2011-February 2012), 50.

[2] Amin Allal, “La ‘reconversion’ problématique du bassin minier de Gafsa en Tunisie.Réformes néolibérales, clientélismes et protestations en situation politique autoritaire,” Politique Africaine 117 (March 2010), 107-126.

[Excerpted from Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle and Francesco Cavatorta, “Beyond Ghannouchi: Social Changes and Islamism in Tunisia,” Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012). For more information, or to subscribe and read the whole issue, please click here.]

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