News / Africa

Growing Debate Centers on Tunisia's Islamist Party

A Tunisian holding a board reading 'Not afraid of Islam', welcomes opposition figure Rached Ghannouchi, unseen, during his arrival at the international airport of Tunis, in Tunisia (File Photo)
A Tunisian holding a board reading 'Not afraid of Islam', welcomes opposition figure Rached Ghannouchi, unseen, during his arrival at the international airport of Tunis, in Tunisia (File Photo)

Tunisia's Islamist party was legalized this week after 20 years in the political wilderness. Under the pro-Western, but hardline, government of ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Ennahdha was branded a terrorist organization. Now, the party is at the center of a growing debate on the role of Islam in Tunisia's budding democracy.

Less than two months ago, Ennahdha Islamist party was banned. Many of its members were in prison or living in exile. Now, they have returned home. The party has rented offices - now packed with visitors - in a bustling street in downtown Tunis. For the first time in two decades, this moderate Islamist party is again part of political life.

Just how big a role Ennahdha will play in Tunisian politics is anybody's guess. When it ran in 1989 elections - the last before it was banned under ex-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali - it captured 17 percent of the vote.

Still relevant?

Ennahdha member Abdelhamid Jlassi was jailed a few years later on charges of plotting against the state. He was released in 2007. Now he is a senior member of the party's executive committee. He has no doubt Ennahdha still resonates with many Tunisians.

Jlassi says its impossible to say how popular Ennadha is because political polls were banned under Ben Ali. But he believes a large segment of Tunisia's population sympathizes with the Islamist movement.

Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Middle East and North Africa programs, Eric Goldstein, agrees.

"Ennahdha clarely has a significant base of support in Tunisia and wants to play a political role," he said. "And they should be allowed to play a political role as long as it remains true to its professed commitment - to respect the rules of the game, to respect the rights of women and to respect the results of elections."


Tunisia is among the most secular and western-oriented country in the Arab world. Most women do not wear headscarves and abortions here are legal. Supermarkets and many restaurants sell alcohol.

Ennahdha played only a minor role in the youthful, Internet-driven revolt that ultimately toppled Ben Ali in January. But now Ennahdha is a member of Tunisia's so-called Revolutionary Committee, made up of unions, rights groups and opposition groups debating the country's future. A key question is what role, if any, religion should play in politics.

Cultural role

Some women are concerned Ennadha may ultimately roll back women's rights here - although party members staunchly deny this. A leading Tunisian human rights activist and secretary general of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, Khadija Cherif, wants a separation of mosque and state.

Cherif is lobbying for Tunisia's constitution to be amended to include secularity as a political principle. If religion is separated from politics, she says, what's the point of Ennadha as a political party? Instead, she sees it playing a cultural role.

Religious dimension

But Ennadha's Jlassi believes democracy in Tunisia - and in the Arab world - can have a religious dimension.

Jlassi says Ennadha wants to win over Tunisian voters, not because of religion but because of its political platform, on unemployment or education for example.  He sees Ennadha as a variation of Turkey's ruling and Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party.

Jlassi says Ennadha will not run in Tunisia's presidential elections, which are expected several months from now. But it will run in the legislative polls.

Farez Mabrouk, the head of Tunisia's newly created Arab Policy Institute, says the final arbiters in this debate are Tunisian voters.

"Tunisians will decide what type of regime they want," he said. "If Tunisians want a political party like Ennahdha, they will vote for them."

But Mabrouk also believes one message of the people's revolts in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world is the affirmation of moderate Islam. He believes democracy is possible in an Islamic country.

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