Ennahda in Tunisia Pioneers Another Arab Era and Test

Tunisia’s successful Ennahda Party has moved towards separating its religious and political activities. It marks an important milestone in the development of Arab politics.

The decision last week by Tunisia’s successful Ennahda Party to separate its political from its religious functions strikes me as one of the most important developments in modern Arab political life. It may help clarify, perhaps for the first time since the 1930s, how powerful religious sentiments and values in Arab society can interact with the frail world of electoral politics and ideology-based parties.

The separation of political work in public from religious preaching and other spiritual functions is especially significant because Ennahda has proven to be perhaps the most effective Islamist political organization in the modern Arab World. It survived decades of oppression under the regime of deposed President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, successfully regrouped in 2011, and won the first post-dictatorship parliamentary elections, served in several coalition governments, and engaged in constant negotiations and pragmatic deals with the other leading political forces in the country, and even left office to make way for a technocratic transitional government that allowed Tunisia’s democratic transition to succeed. It has proven to be a winner, because it has been a pragmatic and realistic political force whose ideology appeals to the masses.

Now it faces its most important test in moving forward to prove its credibility, popularity, and efficacy in the nascent, fragile world of Tunisian electoral pluralism. It will reveal in the coming years, at local and national levels simultaneously, whether Islamist movements like itself can be at once effective protest and opposition groups, successful political actors in fair and free elections, efficacious incumbents once in office, and graceful losers when popular opinion turns against them. The party more or less passed its first tests in all those arenas in the period 2014-2015, but its formal division now into religious and political organizations promises to reveal the true depth of its anchorage in society.

So its rebranding and the effective re-launch of its political party side indicates a certain maturity and coming to grips with reality that no other Islamist mainstream movement in the Arab World has shown. In the Western media this move has widely been called “separating church from state,” in a typically arrogant penchant to see the evolution of Arab political life as necessarily having to mirror major milestones in the Western world. Never mind this simplistic line.

The importance of what is happening now in Ennahda, and has been brewing for some years under the surface and in closed meetings of activists in other mainstream Muslim Brotherhood groups around the region, is the test of whether indigenous Islamists can find the right blend of religious values, political proficiency, and service delivery efficiency that would get them elected, and then re-elected in successive votes.

The Justice and Development Party in Turkey travelled this road successfully in the past two decades, but no Arab Islamists have had the same success. The closest Arab groups that can claim success in this arena are Hezbollah and Hamas, but they are mainly military resistance movements that initially challenged Israeli occupation as their main function, and their success in this arena led to their growth and strength.

The important thing in Ennahda, no longer allowing its leaders to hold leadership positions in civil society organizations while also being active in religious organizations or preaching in mosques, is what this will reveal about the party’s ability to function purely as a political organization, in a competitive electoral environment. The citizens know and often share its religious views, and they appreciate the decades of hardships the party endured under repressive former governments. But they will vote or not vote for it only on the basis of whether they feel the party can deliver what citizens want: jobs, less corruption, more personal freedoms, efficient public services, and other things that citizens and voters all over the world want.

This transformation will force the political Ennahda to show what it can do in these realms that are based on citizen consent and accountability, both of which directly link political parties to the sentiments and needs of ordinary citizens. That link has never been established in any Arab country in a credible manner in modern times. Instead, Arab voters have played at voting in elections that were not genuine elections in most cases, and they mostly cast their votes on the basis of family ties, religious affiliations, ethnic loyalties, cash payments, promises of jobs, or other such factors.

Some voters will still reward Ennahda for its decades of courageous political opposition and for espousing Islamic values that are widely shared in society. But if it does not deliver on security, economic growth, social equity, and clean buses, it will wither away like so many other failed political movements that built castles on foundations of emotions, and were wiped away with the first tide of genuine citizen accountability. This is a process worth watching, not because it separates church from state, but because it will test whether citizen and state can finally bond through the intermediating mechanisms of credible political parties.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global