The Reawakening of Nahda in Tunisia

by Graham Usher | published April 30, 2011

Casbah Square in Tunis has the feel of the morning after. Strewn around the plaza are the odd, drooping Tunisian flag and other relics of the mass demonstrations that forced the fall of the ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and then two “interim governments” deemed too closely associated with his regime. There are still a few protests in the Tunisian capital. But they are no longer transformative of the political order. They are small, sectional, partisan -- almost routine.

A group of teachers from Tunisia’s poor interior have marched for five days to gather outside the Ministry of Youth, an ornate building in French colonial style that abuts the square. Twelve hundred new jobs for educators have been created since Ben Ali fell. But the posts are not being distributed fairly, say the teachers. “Just like before the revolution,” their colleagues in wealthier coastal cities get first pick.

A black tent is draped with a flapping banner that reads “Committee to Defend the Revolution.” Young men hand out leaflets calling for the removal of the newest “interim” interior minister “for being too close to the police.” Tunisia’s police force, estimated to be 150,000 strong, vanished into thin air after Ben Ali’s flight into Saudi Arabian exile on January 14. The reemergence of patrolmen on certain of the capital’s plusher boulevards -- together with a drop in strikes -- is seen by most Tunisians as another sign of the country’s slow crawl back to normalcy.

But a crawl it is. Many of those now in the square are not protesters but migrant workers returned from Libya, ragged and disheveled, a smattering of the 70,000 Tunisians made idle by the war across the southeastern border. One woman picking her teeth is fresh out of Misrata, the primary Libyan battleground of April. She got no help from the Tunisian embassy in Tripoli, she says, but the Tunisian army gave her and her family food at the border. “The Libyan soldiers asked us where we were from,” she says. “‘Tunisia,’ we said. ‘So you’re the ones who started this revolution business.’ Then they took our money and beat us up.”

The returnees from Libya call upon the government to “integrate” them into the economy. But it is a demand beyond the ability of any Tunisian government, interim or otherwise, to fulfill. Unemployment is said to be around 14 percent nationally. The figure is approximate and, in any case, masks huge regional and generational discrepancies. In the coastal cities, the rate of joblessness may be as low as 7 percent, while in the interior it may reach as high as 30 percent. Among Tunisians under 30, including some 400,000 university graduates, the rate is 26 percent. By common assent, this class and age cohort is the one that led the revolution that brought down Ben Ali. Now, in the hundreds, the jobless youth smoke in cafés or loiter in the lanes of Tunis’ old city, still fired up but with nothing to do.

Two Revolutions

There were two revolutions in Tunisia over the winter of 2010-2011. The first is already the stuff of legend. Twenty-six year old Mohamed Bouazizi, in an act of outraged despair at the indignity of not being allowed to work, set himself afire and released a revolution that spread from the interior to the coast and thence to the region, toppling two dictators of 24 years (Tunisia) and 30 years (Egypt) along the way.

The second upheaval was just as remarkable, even if it was eclipsed by the convulsions in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria. From January 18 -- the day Ben Ali fled -- to March 4 a grassroots coalition of trade unions, leftists, human rights groups and Islamists, mainly but not only from the Nahda (Renaissance) movement, turned Casbah Square into a pulpit for protests against any and all attempts by remnants of Ben Ali’s regime to regain control of the transition away from dictatorship. Having refused to open fire on protesters in the first revolution, Tunisia’s 30,000-strong army withdrew to its constitutional role in the second: It guarded certain civic sites but allowed the struggle to play out between regime and opposition.

And play out it did. An avalanche of civil disobedience not only swept away two interim cabinets, it also forced the resignation of Ben Ali-appointed governors in the provinces, the dissolution of his ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) and the disbanding of the state security apparatus, including Ben Ali’s hated political police. Nahda and other parties that had been banned were allowed to operate. And newly amnestied political prisoners were permitted to run for office.

The coup de grace came on March 3. After days of mass sit-ins in Casbah Square, interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi bowed to the protesters’ core demand: National elections for a constituent assembly would be held on July 24. The assembly will be empowered to draft a new constitution and convene parliamentary and presidential elections. Via their elected representatives, the Tunisian people will have the opportunity to mint a constitutional democracy from scratch. It will be “a new political system that definitively breaks with the old regime and a mirror that truly reflects the people’s ambitions,” promised Essebsi.

The scale of this achievement can be contrasted with what is happening elsewhere. In Egypt two weeks later, voters approved the kind of regime-steered transition that the masses in Casbah Square fought so hard to prevent. In Syria and Yemen dictators have dug in and fought back with bloody repression; in Libya there is civil war and foreign intervention; in Bahrain, occupation and reprisals.

Perhaps the magnitude of the accomplishment is why the square feels so spent. The people are absent not because they have been crushed or because a military council has wrested away control of the transition; they are absent because their political demands have been met. They have brought down the regime.

Now there is an almost unbearable lightness of being without authority, a sense of drift and “aloofness,” says Ilhem Abdelkifi, a trade union and human rights activist. It translates into an irritable, edgy apprehension about the future. “It’s not as easy as we thought it would be,” Abdelkifi says over a cappuccino in downtown Tunis. The interim government is weak and ineffective, she complains. The political forces that came together so heroically to end the old regime have now fallen into infighting and factionalism, unable to agree on the shape of the transition or even an electoral law for the July 24 poll. The profusion of some 50 new political parties only muddles the mix. In the interior, the Ben Ali governors have been replaced by obscure new “popular committees in defense of the revolution.” They are answerable to no one, Abdelkifi says, and “seem salafi-inspired” or maybe loyal to the old regime. In the cities there is rising crime and a dire economy: Wild dogs roam parks run to seed. She no longer knows whether the July 24 date looms too close or too far away for a proper transition. “I used to think time was too short, that all these new parties need more time to get organized. But now I wonder if the wait isn’t too long, that elections are needed to stop the deterioration.”

She sips on her coffee. “No one led our revolution -- that was its strength. If you wanted something done, you went to the streets and protested. But without any kind of state or party presence you need leadership, some kind of dominant political force. Otherwise you’re in a mess. Yesterday a man set fire to himself and died because he had no job,” she says. “Maybe it will blow up again.”

That fear is shared across the political spectrum, enveloping those who came out stronger from Tunisia’s second revolution. Rachid Ghannouchi is the president of the Islamist movement Nahda and its icon. Prior to Ben Ali’s fall, he was Tunisia’s most famous political exile. Since his January 30 return to his homeland, he has emerged as a hugely influential figure in the struggle for a constitutional democracy. Yet he echoes Abdelkifi’s nervousness. “Yes,” he says. “We must make the transition a success.”

Nahda

Ghannouchi invokes nothing so much as a retired civil servant whittling away his days in one of Tunis’ leafier suburbs. He is a neat, small man, with silvery hair and eyes that smile. On second glance it is clear that he is the eye of a hurricane.

A short drive from his home, Nahda activists are installing pine desks and black leather swivel chairs for the movement’s first official bureau in Tunis. The activists are an awkward mélange of local cadres, returned exiles, ex-prisoners and youth all trying to knock an underground movement into the shape of a modern political party. A young woman -- not a member, she insists -- “networks” with bearded officials just out of jail on how to deal with the media. “You have to remember that for 23 years there was political death in Tunisia. We need to familiarize the people with Nahda,” says executive member Abdellatif Mekki. He spent ten years behind bars.

Compared with other parts of Tunisia’s new political order, however, Nahda looks well placed. Analysts say the movement came out well from the tumult of Tunisia’s second revolution. Its national structure gives it an edge over the dispersal of votes likely to be caused by the spread of new parties. “Nahda has a base,” says the trade unionist Abdelkifi, who is no Islamist. “Tunisians are religious. It will attract those who do not know where to go.” Ghannouchi says if Nahda "gets a 30-35 percent vote for the constituent assembly, we’ll be very happy." Others will be alarmed by such a proportion, and not only in Tunisia. The 35 percent figure is probably hype, say observers, though 25 percent is possible. But the truth is that nobody really knows the depth of Nahda’s base, or that of any other party, due to the extreme de-politicization of Tunisian society during the Ben Ali era.

And there are other reasons why it is hard to assess Nahda’s weight. As it was banned from 1991 to 2011, most Tunisians under 30 (54 percent of the population, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics) have no experience of the movement as a political organization. Political Islam for them can mean anything from Turkey’s Justice and Development Party to al-Qaeda, but it is always geographically distant. But older Tunisians, particularly from the more affluent urban middle classes, do have personal memories of Nahda -- and most are unpleasant. They remember how, in the 1980s, earlier incarnations of Nahda bombed hotels, threatening Tunisia's vital tourist industry. And how, in 1991, Nahda militants attacked an RCD office in Tunis, killing one civilian, and throwing acid in the faces of others. For many Tunisians, these incidents raised the specter of an Algeria-like civil war, a fear that Ben Ali’s regime stoked at every opportunity. Twenty years later, the specter has yet to be exorcised among Tunisia’s secular elite.

Ghannouchi admits that individuals affiliated with Nahda were behind the violence, but he insists that they received no approval from the leadership. He accepts that mistakes were made, but counters that any acts of violence committed by his movement paled in comparison to the immeasurably greater state violence inflicted upon it under Ben Ali. In any case, Ghannouchi renounced political violence in the early 1990s and has since advocated democracy as the only road to power for a party advocating political Islam. In an interview with the Financial Times, just prior to his January 30 return to Tunisia, he said that Nahda “drank the cup of democracy in one gulp” back in the 1990s, while other Islamist movements “have taken it sip by sip.”

His writings from exile tell as much. The essays were supposedly an inspiration for the Turkish party’s so far deft strategy of being a mildly Islamist government in a resolutely secular state. Younger Nahda leaders like Mekki think the “Turkish model” could be applied in Tunisia. Ghannouchi talks only of a Tunisian model. “You have to be clear about what was unique to Tunisian revolution and what was not,” he says.

Past

The current wave of revolt in the Arab world began in Tunisia for several reasons, Ghannouchi continues. “We are perhaps the most homogeneous Arab society. Unlike in Syria, Bahrain or even Egypt, there is no problem of minorities. In Syria, the ‘Alawis clearly support the regime. Here you can mobilize everyone against the dictatorship.” Second, “Tunisia is a very educated society.” He cites one luminous comparison. “We have a population of 10 million people, including 2 million youth. Those 2 million can use the Internet. Communication is easy between them. In Algeria there are 32 million people. 500,000 use the internet.”

What Tunisia had in common with other Arab states was the corruption of power or, in Ghannouchi’s phrase, the “mix of political authority with a mafia.” “That is what defines the modern Arab regime,” he says. “A mafia or quasi-mafia runs the state. That was so in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. In all there were facades of modernity, of a multi-party system, of a judiciary. But the dictator and mafia confiscate all and control all. If anything the control was greater in Tunisia than anywhere else.”

So why did the revolutions start in Tunisia? And who were its leaders? Ghannouchi chooses his words carefully. He has to square the narrative of his movement with that of his society. And the two ways of telling the story do not always align. “Our revolution was led by the youth, especially the jobless university graduates. But Nahda was among them, among those who suffered the most in Tunisia in the last 20 years. I doubt if there is a family in Tunisia who doesn’t know a Nahda member who was killed, expelled or jailed. This increased the pressure, the anger, in society. Nahda was part of this pressure. It was not the leadership of the revolution. And no party has the right to blanket the revolution with its slogans. But we were part of the pressure that compelled the youth to revolt.”

There is some truth in this tale and a lot of bluster, despite the painstaking diction. Overwhelmingly, Tunisians insist that their revolution was a spontaneous, youth-driven affair, propelled by the anomie felt amidst rising education, rising expectations and rising unemployment. Facebook activists amplified the voices of revolt in the streets via new technologies. Civic groups, especially the trade unions, lent the uprising breadth and depth. Nahda cadre may have been involved in the ferment as individuals. But to claim for Nahda a privileged place in the “pressure” that caused the revolution is to invent a lineage that does not exist -- and many Tunisians resent the attempt.

Where the Islamists can pull rank on their fellow agitators is in the scale of past persecution. Ben Ali’s brutal police state brooked little opposition of any kind, but it was the Islamists who bore the brunt of the repression, usually on the spurious pretext that “eradication” (a term borrowed from Algerian authorities battling Islamists) was the only way to stop Tunisia from following Algeria’s path. Dozens of Nahda cadre were killed, 30,000 were imprisoned and 1,000 exiled. Ghannouchi was tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment three times before finding asylum in Britain in 1991. (Arab states refused him entry.) Even in London he never felt wholly secure from the political police.

Victimhood has been Nahda’s signature since the lifting of the ban in Tunisia. Ceremonies organized by the movement are held across the country in memory of those who fell fighting the dictatorship, especially Islamists. They are moving, well-attended events. But they are also pieces of political theater: Nahda is trying to inscribe itself in the annals of a revolution from which, as an organized political force, it was largely absent.

But if Nahda’s political role was muted in the first Tunisian revolution, it was loud in the second. From the moment that Ghannouchi landed at the Tunis airport on January 30, he and his movement increasingly defined the themes for the post-Ben Ali transition. “The dictator has gone, but the dictatorship remains,” he told the thousands who greeted him. Nahda would not work with the RCD (then still a legal party) or any of its elements because “only God can bring life from death. And we cannot bring a democratic system out of a corrupt dictatorial system.” He noted that although the revolution had been made by the educated unemployed, the unions and the lawyers, none of these elements “are present in the transition.”

Nahda’s first decision upon its leader’s return was not to join any interim government. The second was to join the Committee to Defend the Revolution, an alliance of 25 organizations including the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers, the National Lawyers’ Movement, the Tunisian League of Human Rights and the Communist Workers Party of Tunisia, a group that is particularly strong among university students. Representing those forces “most active” in the uprising that overthrew Ben Ali, the Committee demanded that it serve as a kind of de facto parliament for the interim government, with legislative, decision-making and supervisory powers. This demand was rejected. So the Committee became the tribune and motor of the protests in Casbah Square, mobilizing around the goals of purging the transitional administration of its RCD holdovers and agitating for elections to a constituent assembly.

In less than two months, both aims were achieved. And Nahda -- together with the other Committee constituents -- has now joined the so-called Higher Committee for the Achievement of the Revolutionary Objectives, Political Reform and Transition to Democracy. Vested with executive powers, the Higher Committee is the body that approved a new political parties’ law legalizing Nahda, despite a constitutional ban in Tunisia on parties based on religion. It has yet to agree upon an electoral law or a commission to run constituent assembly elections, putting the July 24 date at risk.

Future

Despite this and other snags, Ghannouchi insists that the coalition that steered the second Tunisian revolution must continue until elections, and even beyond. “We want to work with others in a kind of national unity alliance. In fact we need a national unity government. No single party can lead during this period, not even Nahda.”

But those forces with whom Ghannouchi seeks to work -- social democrats, communists, trade unions, human rights groups -- want to protect not only the revolution but also the liberal character of Tunisian modernity. The women among the activists are particularly keen to safeguard the country’s personal status code, which bans polygamy, grants women equal pay and permits the legal right to abortion. “We will not try to change the code in any way,” vows Ghannouchi with emphasis. “We see it as compatible with Islamic law. The code was written in the 1950s by Tunisian Muslim scholars like Abdel Aziz Gaid and Tahar Bin Ashour, through ijtihad or the reinterpretation of holy texts. In 1988 and again in 2007 we signed pacts with Tunisia’s opposition parties to keep the code. It will be respected.”

Some would see this thumbnail history of the personal status code as revisionist, rather like Ghannouchi’s claims regarding Nahda’s role in the uprising against Ben Ali. But it is consistent with the Islamist leader’s earlier utterances. To national and foreign media alike, Ghannouchi has said that the code derives from shari‘a; that wearing hijab is a matter of personal choice; and that stoning and amputation cannot be seen as contemporary punishments.

Ecumenical in its alliances, liberal in its proclaimed social policy, what about Nahda is Islamist? “Our main slogan for this period is democracy and justice within the Tunisian identity,” Ghannouchi explains. “Like the other main Tunisian parties, we want freedom of religion, a separation of powers, regular elections, a multi-party system and a free press. But whereas the other parties link these choices to Western models, we say they are rooted in Tunisia’s Arab and Muslim heritage. This is what distinguishes us from other parties. We believe it was because Ben Ali and before him [Tunisia’s founding president, Habib] Bourguiba ignored this heritage that the people became alienated from them.”

Nor does he foresee major differences on foreign policy with the other parties. But, like them, he feels “very perplexed” about the country’s most immediate crisis in international affairs, the ongoing internal war in Libya. “We support the call for change by the Libyan people. We know how they have been crushed by Qaddafi. But we are uncomfortable with their calls for Western intervention. For us it conjures up the image of Iraq and Afghanistan, which were disasters. So I’m confused.” So is most of the country, if not the region, Ghannouchi adds. “Before the Western intervention, I with thousands of others would demonstrate outside the Libyan embassy in Tunis in support of the Libyan revolution. Since the intervention, I no longer demonstrate. And neither does anyone else.”

Ambivalence is also the temper of Nahda’s attitude toward Europe, relations with which will be critical for reviving a tanked Tunisian economy. On the one hand, Ghannouchi and other Nahda leaders are grateful for the refuge they received in countries like Great Britain, especially after Arab states spurned them. Yet there is anger that the European Union signed economic and other agreements with Ben Ali during the worst years of his widely documented repression. European states were also complicit in perpetuating an economic system that, in order to undercut European labor costs, spawned disproportionately menial, unskilled and badly paid jobs for Tunisians. That neo-colonial model will have to change, say Nahda leaders. One talks of “reorienting” trade to Tunisia’s Arab and African hinterland, so that the interior can be developed into an attractive destination for the investments of returnees from exile. Yet when Ghannouchi talks of Nahda’s economic policy he looks neither south nor east but north. “I think we should follow the social democracy practiced by Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. Economies should be controlled by values, not purely by aggressive market forces.”

In policy, alliances and even ideology, it would seem that Nahda’s future is to be the Tunisian equivalent of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party: an Islamist movement that operates within the confines, if not of a constitutionally secular state, then of a heavily Europeanized and secularized one. Many Tunisians will feel at home with such an outcome. But others know the secular and liberal left is not the only force being brought to bear on Nahda’s trajectory.

The Tunisian revolution brought not only liberation but also attacks on synagogues, brothels, liquor stores and unveiled women. The attackers are sometimes said to be saboteurs from the ranks of the old regime. But more usually they are seen to be adherents of nascent salafi groups in Tunisia, which arose in the wake of Nahda’s banishment from the scene. No one knows the salafis’ strength. Most think the groups are small. But, powered by Saudi money and the fervor of Tunisian cadre who learned their creed in the Afghan and Pakistani jihad, they could grow, especially if the economy remains in rough shape.

There are certainly seeds. In 2002, a Tunisian suicide bomber schooled in Pakistan and paid by al-Qaeda detonated a gas tanker outside a synagogue in Jerba, murdering 20. Today, on the border with Libya, a self-styled “commander of the faithful” runs a provisions camp for refugees from the fighting. He has banned music and all types of ritual except “Islamic” ones. And he fights with any local group that tries to challenge his decrees. One of the very few political parties the Higher Committee barred from running in the July 24 elections was Hizb al-Tahrir, a salafi youth movement that had called for an Islamic caliphate and the abolition of political parties.

“They exist,” says Ghannouchi of the salafis. “But they exist only because of the long absence of Nahda from Tunisia. When we were here, there was no such religious extremism. We are in discussions with them. Our lawyers defended them when they were persecuted by Ben Ali. And I think most salafis will either join us or back us in the elections. Or they will face marginalization. The Tunisian milieu is not conductive to extremism. A free Tunisia cannot be a base for extremism.”

A New History

Ghannouchi’s main effort today is not with the radical fringe. It is with the mainstream of his movement: The task is how to ensure that local cadres, exiles, ex-prisoners and neophytes cohere in readiness for a party congress that should determine Nahda’s program and slate for the July 24 elections.

There are struggles between and within all these groups, though the dividing lines are rarely predictable. One founding Nahda member, Abdelfattah Morou, says the time has come for genuine self-criticism regarding the movement’s role in the violence of the 1980s and 1990s. He was forced to stand down under a barrage of criticism from the movement’s younger cadre, many of whom do not remember the 1990s. Morou is now planning to form his own independent Islamist party.

Nor, for all of Ghannouchi’s talk of national unity and the personal status code being an expression of Islamic law, do observers believe the coming debate over the new constitution will be anything other than divisive, especially if the salafis emerge as powerful counterweights to Nahda on the religious right. “There’s bound to be a problem over the constitution,” says one observer who refused to be named. “I can see problems over shari‘a, even the hijab. I can see real problems over secularism.”

He may be right. While Ghannouchi is ready to field all queries, the word “secularism” gets a rise out of his followers. “It’s only a minority who want secularism in Tunisia,” snaps one. “We don’t want a dialogue with any party on this issue. It wasn’t an issue in the revolution.” Perhaps not, but it will be at the constituent assembly.

Will Ghannouchi be in the assembly hall to cast Nahda’s vote? In London, he said he would give up active leadership of the movement and decline to run for office because “there are new generations in Nahda more suited to political activism.” Since his return he has said nothing about his future. Instead, infused with new blood, hope and ambition, he speaks of opening up Nahda to “all levels of society, not just the young but the middle classes, even the elite. We want Nahda to become a national party that can replace the RCD.”

In Tunisia, that equation with Ben Ali’s ruling apparatus may distress more people than it inspires. In any case, it is difficult to imagine a man who has spent most of his 70 years building a movement stepping down just as it reaches, if not a promised land, then at least a better one. How does he judge this moment in Arab history? “It’s a new history. And as Tunisians we are very proud that this new history came from this small country. We feel history is moving again after having stopped for 50 years. An American professor said some time ago that history had finished. It hasn’t. In the Arab world, it’s only beginning.”

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