Formerly Islamist party evolves in an interesting and promising way

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by Hans Dembowski

Ennahda can become the Muslim Democratic Party Tunisia needs

In May, Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda held a convention and decided to change course. Its leaders declared they were now Muslim democrats and would henceforth separate religious affairs from political activism. Ennahda’s mission, according to fournder Rachid Ghannouchi, has evolved from defending the Muslim identity to ensuring the democratic transition after the revolution, and “today moves on to focus on the economic transition”. He also said that mosques should not get involved in politics.

This development is interesting. There can be no doubt that any kind of Arab democracy will need a political force that is rooted in Muslim tradition, culture and dogma. If, however, such a force insists on implementing its world view without compromise, it is not taking a democratic approach and cannot contribute to a full-fledged democracy. Ghannouchi’s statements suggest that he wants Ennahda to become something like the Christian Democrats that exist in several European countries, including Germany, where their leader is Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Ennahda has come a long way. After the downfall of former dictator Zine El Abidine at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, Ennahda was pretty much the Tunisian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, with which it shares historical roots. Both Ennahda and the Brotherhood fast became major political players, and both formed governments. Both had a long track-record of underground activism during authoritarian rule, and both were keen on finally enforcing their reading of the holy scriptures as national law. Ennahda, however, proved more willing to compromise.

Ultimately, it joined forces with secular political parties to pass a democratic constitution. This decision was certainly inspired by two insights:

  • The Muslim Brothers attempt to monopolise power and take control of all state institutions had failed in Egypt, triggering a violent military backlash, while
  • Salafist radicalism and Islamist terrorism were becoming increasingly destructive.

In view of these depressing developments, power sharing and the transition to a constitutional democracy looked much more attractive. The London-based Financial Times spells out quite accurate in an op-ed leader why this choice is most welcome. It would have been great if the Muslim Brothers had taken a similar stance. Egypt too might have had a successful transition to democracy, and the Arab region would be in a better shape.

The downside is that one does not quite know whether to trust Ennahda’s most recent statements. The FT correctly draws attention to the fact that Turkey’s AKP party took a similar stance in the past two decades. It chose to prioritise democracy over religious dogma and that helped it to become Turkey’s strongest party. It is depressing, that its top leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who managed to dismantle Turkey’s authoritarian “deep state”, is himself now becoming ever more dictator-like, as I argued in a recent blog entry.

In retrospect, it does not look as if Erdogan ever really wanted to make Turkey a more liberal country, but more like he had an instrumental attitude towards constitutional principles. So long as they serve his power hunger, he’ll insist on them, but he’ll just as happily abandon them should he feel they are standing in his way.

It is impossible to say whether Ghannouchi means what he says today, or whether he will turn out to be just as power hungry as Erdogan should the opportunity arise. For the time being, however, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. His current stance makes sense. It is the best way to serve his country. Things may always go wrong – but without some kind of Muslim democrats, they certainly will go wrong in Tunisia.

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