“Tunisia cannot be governed by only one party,” says Meherzia Labidi, vice president of the country’s National Constituent Assembly. “We are convinced that sharing power is the safest way for Tunisia to really be successful in this transition.”
Amid the religiously charged violence and instability plaguing the Arab world, Labidi’s Ennahda party presents itself as evidence that Islam and democracy can indeed coexist.
After decades of repression, Ennahda re-emerged after the January 2011 revolution that overthrew the authoritarian regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The party found great success during the 2011 elections for a transitional parliament, beating the runner-up by almost 30 percentage points. The party, in a coalition with two secular parties, controlled the prime ministry before ceding power in January 2014.
But despite being the most powerful political party in post-revolution Tunisia, Ennahda has decided not to run a candidate in the November presidential elections.
“Is it good for Tunisia to have a party with the majority in the assembly and the presidency? No,” Labidi told Al Jazeera. “For Tunisians to build a good democracy, a democracy that works, we shall learn how to share.”
Rory McCarthy, a Tunisia-based Oxford doctorate student studying Ennahda, says the party is more concerned with retaining the parliament and prime ministry in new legislative elections to be held in late October.
“They are more interested in reforms that need to be done to the internal workings of the country,” McCarthy told Al Jazeera. Those changes can best be influenced from the parliament, while under a new constitution ratified in January, the presidency will focus on foreign affairs and defence.
Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, an organisation studying political Islam, said the early state of Tunisia’s transition necessitates power-sharing.
“In a stable democracy, you can govern with a simple majority,” he told Al Jazeera. “During a transition from tyranny to democracy, you need a much bigger base of support.”
While it will stay out of the presidential race, Ennahda expects another strong performance in legislative elections.
“Our ambition now is to remain in the same position in terms of collecting seats from all constituencies, God willing,” Habib Khedher, an Ennahda assembly member from the southern city of Gabes, told Al Jazeera.
How can a person who served despotism, who was one of the components of the system that produced dictatorship, pretend to be a builder of democracy in Tunisia.
The party has placed an emphasis on registering new voters, Khedher said. This reflects expectations that turnout in the second post-revolution elections will be low, and that turnout will be key. But if there is low turnout, Ennahda may have the upper hand thanks to a deep grassroots network rooted in its days as an underground movement.
“This structure was completely destroyed under Ben Ali,” McCarthy said. “Yet, amazingly, after the revolution they managed to rebuild the movement remarkably quickly.”
After the assassinations of two politicians last year, the political process ground to a halt for nearly five months. Political leaders from major parties reached an agreement in December 2013, whereby Ennahda would cede power to a caretaker government after a new constitution was approved. Then-Prime Minister Ali Larayedh stepped down in January and the current government of Mehdi Jomaa took power.
Another factor in Ennahda’s decision not to contest the presidential election, according to McCarthy, is that despite a large grassroots base, the party may not have a candidate who will likely gain broad support.
Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, is seen by many as the strongest presidential candidate. He served in various posts under Tunisia’s first two presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, before retiring from politics in the mid-1990s. He re-emerged following the 2011 revolution, serving as interim prime minister until elections were held. In 2012, Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party was founded, and quickly became Ennahda’s most significant competition.
While Ennahda may not have a candidate of its own, it strongly opposes the prospect of an Essebsi presidency. The party considers him too closely tied with the old regime.
“How can a person who served despotism, who was one of the components of the system that produced dictatorship, pretend to be a builder of democracy in Tunisia?” Labidi asked.
Nidaa Tounes has rejected allegations that it is closely tied to the Ben Ali regime. Essebsi’s supporters have touted his experience in the pre- and post-revolutionary governments as preparing him to guide the country during the ongoing transition.
The stagnant post-revolution economy and a difficult security situation are major concerns for the Tunisian electorate. Specifics about policy choices, however, are rare in Tunisia’s political rhetoric.
“Identity politics have dominated Tunisia since the revolution,” McCarthy said, while “the real problems have nothing to do with identity at all”.
“I don’t see anyone offering really thoughtful innovative ways of tackling the economic crisis,” he added. “This is an identity debate that has been fought for decades.”
Ennahda promotes an Arab and Islamic identity different from what they see as imposed on the country under the pre-revolutionary regime. Formed in 1981, the party took on its current name, Arabic for “renaissance”, in 1989. For much of its history under the resolutely secular regimes of presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the movement was subject to persecution and operated clandestinely. Many members fled into exile and others were imprisoned, some of them tortured.
Labidi and Khedher’s backgrounds are typical of Ennahda leaders. Both came from conservative backgrounds and joined the movement as students. The son of an imam with political leanings, Labidi spent most of the Ben Ali era in France while some family members in Tunisia were imprisoned.
This is an identity debate that has been fought for decades.
The party has presented itself as moderate, democratic, and pluralist since its founding in the early 1980s, McCarthy said. It has always downplayed the importance of Islamic law, and its core constituency has historically been the lower middle class. Masmoudi estimates that the conservative and religious segments of Tunisian society to which Ennahda appeals, represent between 30 and 40 percent of the population.
The slate of Ennahda candidates for this year’s parliamentary elections is more moderate than in 2011. Two controversial conservative figures in the National Constituent Assembly, Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chorou, are absent from the voter lists.
It was easier for the party to advance an Islamist message when it was an underground opposition movement, McCarthy says, but “now they have to make compromises and reassess what it means to be a political movement”.
He sees a potential split in the future between the political wing and others who criticise the concessions and compromises made by the party since 2011.
While Ennahda leaders express confidence they will succeed this year, the party has been blamed for the poor economy and security problems.
There is a sense among some voters that Ennahda was too slow to realise the threat of conservative religious fighters and stem the flow of Tunisians who have left to fight against the Assad regime in Syria. Ennahda opponents have asserted that Ennahda is too closely tied to dangerous conservative elements.
Labidi defends the party’s record in dealing with violent religious groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which the government has accused of involvement in the assassination of two politicians in 2013, and the deadly attacks against state security forces. The United States government declared it a terrorist group and accused it of being behind a 2012 attack on the US embassy in Tunisia.
Under Ennahda Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, Labidi said, the government banned Ansar al-Sharia, arrested suspects preparing terrorist attacks and seized weapons. She said the party had to take an approach to conservative groups that balanced security with respecting the human rights fought for during the revolution.
“A government seeking the success of the revolution and of saving Tunisian liberties cannot be a government of repression,” she said.
McCarthy and Masmoudi both believe that Ennahda’s share of the vote will be a bit less this October than it was in 2011.
“Whatever happens,” McCarthy said, “there will certainly have to be a coalition government”.