Mohammad Dawood Sofi
Al-Nahdah’s rise to power in Tunisia in the October 2011 elections was remarkable, however, the challenges and responsibilities faced were huge and sometimes beyond its expectations. The party found itself in the midst of an economic and security crisis, further exacerbated by conflicting ideologies and polarization both within and beyond the country. Its path to governing the country, therefore, was neither straightforward nor smooth.
In order to maintain the balance and face the challenges that come with governance and power, al-Nahdah took some bold steps. From the very outset, it had expressed its willingness to work with other groups and share the burden of governing the country together. Following its sweeping victory in the elections and abiding by what it had pledged earlier, al-Nahdah invited others to join it in a coalition government. The idea to form a cross-ideological alliance, partly, was to send the message to others about its consensual character and at the same time its realization of the enormous challenges that lay ahead.
However, with the formation of a coalition government with the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, al-Nahdah made some tactical mistakes, somewhat failing to act more responsibly. Rather positively managing the differences and grievances within the Troika it attempted to dominate and control the political arena.
Although the CPR’s Moncef Marzouki was awarded the presidency and Ettakatol’s Mustafa Ben Jafar the head of the Constituent Assembly, all other key ministerial positions were firmly held by al-Nahdah. This partial appropriation of power through selecting its own members in the administrative, political and diplomatic set up, therefore, limited the influence and role of the CPR and Ettakatol within the coalition and marked al-Nahdah’s initial bid to dominate local politics.
Later on, Moncef Marzouki openly affirmed it, saying al-Nahdah wanted everything to lie with them. To reserve the prime minister’s office by a party, leading in the elections seemed quite logical, however, to occupy other key cabinet positions and portfolios proved to be the very antithesis of the consensual politics that al-Nahdah promoted since the Tunisian Revolution.
Integration and Polarization: Although al-Nahdah’s attempt to dominate the political scene was against the spirit of cooperation and consensus building, the party in most cases acted wisely. Its decisions and choices were partly influenced and exemplified by the Tunisian historical memory that was very different from that of Egypt, or for that matter, from the rest of the Arab world.
Therefore, without any doubt, the experience of al-Nahdah in Tunisia would have been very different from the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco. For instance, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite an official ban, maintained a highly visible public presence, thus, largely reversing the influence of secularism in the country. By contrast, Tunisia was entirely different and more importantly, al-Nahdah, had no formal presence in Tunisia before the Revolution.
Given this context, ultimately, regarding a number of matters al-Nahdah had no choice other than to work according to what the specific Tunisian culture and politics demanded. In order to protect the party from what the Muslim Brotherhood faced in Egypt, al-Nahdah had to adopt a populist approach and had to respect others, especially the voices of opposite ideologies.
However, during the constitution-making process, its populist approach was put to a major test. The discussions, particularly over religion-state relations, the inclusion of Sharia in the constitution, blasphemy and gender equality or constitutional rights of women, proved extremely controversial and a constant source of conflict. In this struggle between al-Nahdah and secular groups, rival and competing political positions were articulated. Many of the aforementioned issues fueled conflict and division within the movement and pushed the party toward the brink of separation a number of times. Al-Nahdah witnessed an in-house ideological polarization, the foundational membership represented and advocated an unequivocal restoration of Sharia and the top-level members of the party called for a moderate approach, thus, relegating Sharia to the individual level. While most of its members and supporters pushed hard for the inclusion of Sharia in the constitution, al-Nahdah adopted a more responsible attitude.
In response to these calls, either from its own members and supporters or from Salafis and ordinary Tunisians, al-Nahdah welcomed a series of internal debates and involved everyone, especially its youth wing, who mostly favored the supremacy of Sharia. The leadership of the party through these internal discussions positively channeled the differences in ideologies. In an attempt to unify the country’s disparate political factions at a delicate period, al-Nahdah, after a much-heated debate finally on March 26, 2012, decided “that the country’s post-revolution constitution would not mention Islamic law as a source of legislation.”
Peace with secular heritage: Other debates over various articles of the constitution that invited similar competing positions as well as generating international coverage were particularly related to gender equality, the rights of women and blasphemy. Referring to women as “men’s compliments,” Article 28 of the first draft of constitution published in the summer of 2012 triggered a huge controversy, encouraged a series of protests and caused much anger, especially among secular women. In response to this article, Tunisian women in large numbers staged a protest in Tunis against undermining gender equality and denounced the decision to be translated as “men’s compliments or associates.”
Those who defended the article argued that misinterpretation of the term “yukammil” (meaning to compliment or to fulfill) in the phrasing actually facilitated controversy over the issue. They insisted that if understood and/or interpreted correctly, the article contains a broader connotation and has a deeper sense of enriching or integrating two parts to form a unified whole. It became a major source of concern for secular women, who were wary of al-Nahdah’s intentions, nonetheless. They, therefore, exerted a huge pressure on the National Constituent Assembly to delete the controversial term. The differences between al-Nahdah and their secular opponents once again came to a head during discussions over the famous Personal Status Code.
“The personal status laws were a ‘red line’ that could not be crossed,” stated Essebsi. On the other hand, for some of the members of al-Nahdah, several of the code’s principles contradicted Sharia.
While striving to convince its doctrinal wing to accept the legislation in principle, the leadership sent strong reassurances to their rival secular groups including secular women, expressing their full respect to the country’s Personal Status Code. It is in this context al-Nahdah leader Rached Ghannouchi argued that women’s rights are nowadays part of Tunisian identity that, therefore, obliges us to adopt interpretations that are more flexible and thereby make Islam compatible with this reality.
Freedom of Expression: Besides for this, a legacy of these heated debates swirled around the issue of freedom of expression. The airing of French film “Persepolis” in October 2011, followed by the Printemps des Arts fair in June 2012 in the capital Tunis, particularly triggered a huge debate over whether or not to include the crime of blasphemy in the constitution. The thousands of Tunisians who thronged the streets and staged protests found both Persepolis and the art exhibition offensive and blasphemous.
The fallout of the protests and riots squarely put al-Nahdah in a difficult spot and once again tested its democratic ideals to satisfy conflicting demands. However, in case of freedom of expression al-Nahdah appeared to be less amenable to negotiation and less inclined towards compromise. Rather, through various statements, it urged the National Constituent Assembly to add a provision in the Constitution prohibiting blasphemy and criminalizing attacks on religion, its values and figures.
However, secular groups in the National Constituent Assembly, their allies in the civil society groups and international human rights organizations expressed concern over the reforms proposed by al-Nahdah regarding freedom of expression. Consequently, following negotiations within the Troika, it was finally decided, despite al-Nahdah in the commanding position, that the “controversial blasphemy clause proposed by the ruling Islamist party will not be included in Tunisia’s new constitution.” Despite intense pressure from various quarters and contrary to what most of the secularists underscored, overall, the approach of al-Nahdah, coupled with the arguments of its leadership, reflected a significant harmony between its theoretical expression and practical engagement.
Moreover, it reflects that al-Nahdah took cognizance of the nuanced secular heritage of the country, based on the idea that there should be a separation between Sharia and the functions of the state. Indeed, at this point, al-Nahdah played a constructive role in providing political security to the democratic transition in the country. Its agenda and ideas while in power seemed to go well with the popular sentiment of democracy, pluralism, freedom of expression and human rights.