Tunisia's Ennahdha leaves dreams of Islamic utopian society behind

Tunisia's Ennahdha leaves dreams of Islamic utopian society behind
As Ennahdha moves away from political Islam, the party's leadership will have to rebuild its foundations to match its new vision, argues Tunisian political thinker Samir Hamdi.
3 min read
20 May, 2016
In January, Ennahdha became the largest party in Tunisia's parliament [Getty]

In the wake of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahdha party's decision to separate its religious activities from its political operations, Tunisian political thinker Samir Hamdi has analysed the factors behind the seismic shift - and its potential ramifications.

The party's chief, Rached Ghannouchi, an intellectual who once advocated a strict application of Islamic law, said on Thursday that there was no room left in post-Arab Spring Tunisia for "political Islam".

His comments came on the eve of a three-day congress for Ennahdha, which is part of a coalition government.

"The question to ask is: to what extent can Ennahdha transition and politically move away from its traditional rhetoric filled with utopian socialism and hopes of establishing an Islamic state on top of the ruins of the existing state?" Tunisian political thinker Samir Hamdi wrote for The New Arab's Arabic-language sister.

"Ennahdha has realised the importance of transitioning into a party that operates within the provisions of the constitution and makes allegiances based on political interests," he added.

Party leaders have said the congress would take the formal step of making the separation between political and Islamic activities.

      Ghannouchi is expected to be re-elected [Getty]

Ghannouchi is expected to be re-elected as party head barring any last-minute surprise.

"Ennahdha's current political vision has overshadowed many of the concepts it was founded on; such as an Islamic state, fighting back westernisation and the Islamisation of society. Now its top priorities are providing real and effective solutions to the issues facing the country," says Hamdi.

"Its rhetoric towards other parties has also developed and is no longer based on the principle of ideological rivalry, being replaced by cooperation and alliance - as is required in politics - if it wants to look after its best interests.

"It cannot be denied that there is still a gap between Ennahdha's founding documents and its politics after the revolution, which mandates that the texts are updated to conform with its current political practices."

Hamdi argued that a variety of factors led to the party's decision to evolve, including the ever-changing political reality of Tunisia, as well as regional and international influences.

Ghannouchi and other intellectuals inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 1981 founded the Islamic Tendency Movement, which became Ennahdha in 1989.

The party was persecuted under the regime of Habib Bourguiba and his strongman successor Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

"The failure of many Islamic political groups in other Arab countries to deal with their local crises and preserve their parties has been a factor, as well as the attractive model seen in Turkey," Hamdi added.

"The Turkish Justice and Development Party has bravely played the political game, producing one success after another while in power, without being a political movement 'just by name' - but rather through stressing Islamic values and ethics," said Hamdi.

Ghannouchi received a triumphant welcome from supporters and won the post-revolution election in October 2011, but was forced to step aside two years later amid a deep political crisis.

In 2014, the secularist Nidaa Tounes party of President Beji Caid Essebsi won parliamentary elections, beating Ennahdha into second.

But in January, Ennahdha became the single largest party when some lawmakers left Nidaa Tounes to form a new parliamentary bloc.

Hamdi says that the Ennahdha leadership now faces the challenge of rebuilding the party's infrastructure from scratch - to create a new modern party capable of tackling the issues of the day through appropriate measures and inter-party collaboration.