Tunisia field report: A day in the life of an Islamist in parliament

Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series of reports from the field by scholars from the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy. This series focuses on the future of political Islam, based on conversations with regional leaders and activists.

In the United States, there is a congressperson for every 600,000 citizens. This didn’t allow much opportunity for running into my congressman at the local Starbucks or calling him up on his cell phone. So I was pleasantly surprised during my time in Amman in 2004 to 2005, when I first started researching Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood: I could cold call Islamist members of parliament, tell them who I was (a naïve graduate student), and ask for a meeting. They almost always said yes. When I somewhat randomly called the former prime minister Mudar Badran (who led one of Jordan’s historical curiosities – a short-lived coalition government in which the Brotherhood controlled five ministries), he asked if I might be able to come by his house the next day.

For a young researcher, it was encouraging, but it also provided insight into relationships within often tightly knit societies. In Jordan, there was a sort of intimacy. For those in the political elite, everyone seemed to know everyone else. If you were an East Banker, there was almost certainly a member of your tribe who had been a minister and another member who was, say, a senior figure in the Brotherhood. 

Tunisia’s parliament and its parliamentarians tell a different story, one of an emerging if fragile democracy struggling to match reality to their — and our — expectations. Though drastically underfunded, the Tunisian parliament, with its Mediterranean facades and tiled turquoise ceilings, is one of the more beautiful government buildings I’ve seen. Functionally speaking, however, it leaves much to be desired. The walls are thin, so members of parliament complain of having to lower their voices so the opposition can’t eavesdrop. 

MPs — who make only about 2000 Tunisian dinars, or $1035, per month — don’t have their own offices. One Ennahda parliamentarian joked about hanging out in the journalists’ section. There were outlets where she could actually plug in her laptop. She felt, though, that this was a bit weird: “They might not feel comfortable speaking freely if I’m just sitting around.” Moreover, parliamentarians had no assigned research staff or, for that matter, staff of any kind. Of course, the bigger and better funded political parties could provide staff support of their own. I remarked that this gave well-organized parties like Ennahda a built-in advantage. “You’re a bit cynical!” she told me.

Because of the lack of office space, my meetings with parliamentarians have almost always taken place on one of the big red couches in the hallway. The couches are surprisingly comfortable, so I don’t particularly mind. Sitting in the hallway, though, is intriguing for other reasons. During a meeting with an Ennahda MP, people kept on passing by and saying hello to her. I asked her who were. Most of them were parliamentarians and spokespeople from the secular party Nidaa Tounes, which had just defeated Ennahda in a charged, tense election.

Now that they were in parliament together – and with Ennahda as an unlikely coalition partner – they had to at least try to play nice. Watching her, the interactions seemed warm, genuine, and respectful. I asked her whether what they said — and would still sometimes say — about Ennahda bothered her. “We want to fight the idea that non-Islamists are not legitimate. We want to make them feel comfortable with us.” This was in keeping with something I heard repeatedly from Ennahda figures, including leader Rachid Ghannouchi: It might not seem fair and it might not be “normal,” but the burden, at least for now, was theirs to carry. There was one brief exchange of hellos, though, that struck me as a bit strained and awkward. I asked her what the backstory was. This MP had run a particularly virulent anti-Ennahda campaign. “She might be okay with me personally but she hates what I represent,” she told me. But at least, here in Tunisia, the hatred, however problematic, was contained in the halls of a democratically elected parliament.