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Tunisia field report: Where are Islamists headed?

Editor’s note: This is the first 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.

This Ennahda member of parliament, like most Americans, clearly didn’t have the best impression of the U.S. Congress. Explaining her party’s decision to join a coalition government with secular Nidaa Tounes, she acknowledged it might be difficult for Americans to understand. Democrats and Republicans would never want to be in the same government together, she told me. On this she’s probably right, but it does beg the question of why the Islamist Ennahda party, once again, did something a “normal” democratic party wouldn’t do. Despite coming in second place in Tunisia’s recent elections — winning 31 percent of the seats — it will have only one ministry (the thankless Ministry of Employment) out of a total twenty-one, as well as three junior state secretary posts.

In this sense, Tunisia, despite all of its progress, is still very much in transition. Democratic competition hasn’t been “normalized,” and so an Islamist party like Ennahda must play by a different set of rules. One Ennahda figure, who lived in exile for most of her life, described the Tunisian predicament as two high-speed trains — Islamists and secular hardliners — hurtling toward each other. Someone had to choose another, safer path. And so Ennahda opted not to run a presidential candidate. Not only that, they didn’t even endorse a candidate. Then there was the odd spectacle, in the parliamentary elections, of the losing party celebrating its loss, not too dissimilar from the pre-Arab Spring phenomenon of Islamist parties “losing on purpose.” As one senior Ennahda figure put it: “We were relieved and relieved and relieved.”

The fear of repression — magnified by the 2013 Egyptian coup — has animated Ennahda’s leaders. A return to the old authoritarianism must be avoided at any and all costs, even if that means conceding their Islamism, downplaying revolutionary fervor, and generally de-emphasizing their ideological distinctiveness. Yet all the compromise, at least for a moment, seemed to be for naught. Fresh from their electoral victory over Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes was set to dominate the new government, with almost the entire cabinet comprised of Nidaa Tounes members and allied technocrats. In this sense, Ennahda avoided what might have proved a disaster. The party opposed the proposed government, saved (some) face, and burnished their consensual bona fides when, in the name of national unity, it accepted a cabinet post in a second, more inclusive government. It was able to tell its base that something, in the end, was gained. It might have seemed merely symbolic but that was precisely the point: Any marginalization of Islamists would prove much more difficult with Ennahda inside rather than out. This cautious, defensive posture, though, is far from the call-to-arms that many in the rank and file might hope for.

Despite the discontent, Ennahda’s leaders believe — almost as a matter of faith — that this is the path they must follow. The prominent Ennahda figure Said Ferjani emphasized that “this is a transition” — one that might last 15 to 20 years — and so I would have to judge Ennahda’s behavior with that in mind. He returned to this theme repeatedly. This was an exceptional period and the goal was to solidify the transition, entrench consensual democratic norms, and guarantee basic freedoms, even if it meant undermining party unity or disappointing an increasingly impatient base. But, of course, politics is also about what happens after you get what you want, whenever that might be.

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