Tunisia’s al-Nahda changes its discourse ahead of key post-revolution election

Supporters of Tunisian Ennahda Party hold Tunisian national flag, party’s flags and shout slogans as the founder of Ennahda movement, Rashid al-Ghannushi, speaking during a rally ahead of Tunisian parliamentary election, which will be held on October 22, in Suleiman town of Nabeul, Tunisia, on October 22, 2014. (Photo: Anadolu Agency – Yassine Gaidi)
Published Friday, October 24, 2014
Sunday, October 26, will be the most important day for Tunisians since the ousting of former President Zein al-Abidine ben Ali. It will be the day they will elect the first parliament after the revolution to take on major tasks and powers, many of which have been in the hands of the national constituent assembly which was elected in October 2011.
Tunis – The election will take place under the new constitution ratified on December 26 to be followed by presidential elections. The central question today probably revolves around one of the most important parties in the Tunisian political scene, al-Nahda, which has governed the country in the past three years but is changing its discourse today to attract the largest number of votes.
After three years of being in power and the resentment that developed against the party among Tunisians, al-Nahda is trying to present a new “polished” image of itself. It abandoned a number of its leaders and founders by not nominating them to the parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday because they presented a negative image of the party in the past three years of the life of the national constituent assembly.
The party’s electoral lists, which have been officially declared, lacked some of the historical figures associated with the oldest Islamist movement in Tunisia since its official inception under the name the Movement of Islamic Tendency in June 1981.
Among these figures is Sadok Chourou, nicknamed Tunisia’s Mandela because of the many years he spent in prison under Habib Bourguiba and Zein al-Abidine ben Ali. In almost three years of the life of the national constituent assembly, Chourou did not once take off the Afghan cloak he wears.
Another person that was not included is Habib Ellouze who is famous for wearing his traditional Tunisian clothes in the parliament and during his speeches calling for jihad in Syria and for implementing Islamic law and incorporating it into the constitution. The party list also excluded MP Najib Mourad representing the province of Monastir who is known for his pithy and hardline statements in addressing political issues.
Al-Nahda’s decision to abandon figures that played a prominent role in establishing the movement and expanding it by preaching in mosques during the 1970s and 1980s and who garnered more votes than the party leader, Rached Ghannouchi, at the party’s first public conference in June 2012 has more than one meaning in and outside Tunisia.
It is a message to Tunisian public opinion and the international community as well, stating that al-Nahda Party has definitively broke with the religious proselytizing discourse that has been associated with it since its inception. The demands and challenges of governance prompted the party to abandon this kind of discourse and adopt a civil political discourse instead that does not include declarations of disbelief against others and does not call for a religious state or for implementing Islamic law. In other words, it completely parted ways with the Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood movements which adopt the Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi school where implementing Islamic law represents the backbone of its discourse.

It [al-Nahda] completely parted ways with the Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood movements which adopt the Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi school where implementing Islamic law represents the backbone of its discourse.

The party uses its new discourse as proof of its good faith vis-à-vis the constitution it approved, a constitution that guarantees freedom of conscience – which no religious movement can embrace – safeguards women’s rights, calls for equality and preserves personal status law which outlaws polygamy. All this completely contradicts the discourse of Arab and Islamic religious movements. 
Al-Nahda is trying to promote this polished discourse before the election to avoid the weak performance of the two governments headed by al-Nahda leaders, Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh. Despite all that, the new discourse has not reassured Tunisians who have experienced al-Nahda for the past three years, saw its achievements and realize that it will be met with failure like its discourse in the 2011 election.
Before the October 2011 election, al-Nahda Party promoted a modernist discourse in which it stressed that it is a Tunisian party rooted in the legacy of Tunisia’s reform movement. But once it got into power, it started to reveal its true Muslim Brotherhood face.
It gave the green light to religious associations and clerics to wage a campaign to “Afghanize” Tunisia by promoting religious education in the Pakistani vein, restricting freedoms through what Ghannouchi calls the “dynamics of social pressures” and turning a blind eye to arms smuggling from Libya. 
Al-Nahda put its supporters in key government positions, recompensed its prisoners by recruiting them and providing them with monetary compensation, established a parallel network of media outlets, flooded the country with preachers from the Gulf and Egypt known for ideas alien to Tunisian society such as female circumcision and veiling young girls and legalized political parties openly hostile to the republican system and its values such as the Tahrir Party headed by Rida Belhaj and the Tunisia Zitouna Party headed by Adel Almi who called for beating Tunisians who choose not to fast during Ramadan, polygamy and abandoning the personal status law.

The country witnessed in the past three years a security collapse that began with targeting and assassinating figures opposed to al-Nahda Party like Lotfi Nagdh … leftist leader Chukri Beleid … and the Nasserist leader Mohammed Brahmi.

In addition, the country witnessed in the past three years a security collapse that began with targeting and assassinating figures opposed to al-Nahda Party like Lotfi Nagdh, representative of Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) who is considered the first martyr under al-Nahda’s rule, leftist leader Chukri Beleid on February 6, 2013 and the Nasserist leader Mohammed Brahmi on July 25, 2013. 

Accusations were directly leveled at al-Nahda Party, especially the interior minister at the time and Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh for being directly responsible for the two assassinations. 

In addition, more than 50 individuals from the army, police and national guard were martyred, not to mention facilitating the travel of thousands of young men and women to Syria to fight the Syrian regime.
All this happened under al-Nahda’s rule. Will this party succeed once again in attracting Tunisian public opinion through its project and renew trust in its candidates for parliamentary and presidential elections? Or will Tunisians take into consideration what happened to them in the past three years from the rise in poverty and unemployment to discovering assassinations for the first time and the killing of soldiers and members of security forces and therefore hold al-Nahda accountable in the ballot box?
Al-Nahda Party runs for election with a heavy legacy whose motto is the “emerging dictatorship” as the head of its first government and its former Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali called it. The parties challenging it are counting on the slogan of regaining a democratic Tunisia to attract voters. What chance does al-Nahda have at the ballot box?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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