Ennahda: Before and After the Coup in Tunisia
A Conversation with Andrew F. March
Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel
After the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, the Islamist movement Ennahda reemerged in Tunisia and frequently has been the largest party in parliament and kingmaker in coalition governments. Consequently, it has borne the brunt of many Tunisians' growing disenchantment with their post-revolutionary political system. Since President Kais Saied's power grab in July 2021 and subsequent dissolution of parliament, Ennahda and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, have tried to oppose the coup without triggering a violent crackdown by the state or alienating allies and party members. Nonetheless, in the lead-up to a national referendum scheduled for July 25 to approve a new draft constitution, Tunisian courts imposed a travel ban on Ghannouchi and froze various Ennahda leaders' bank accounts. In this Crown Conversation, the third in a series on Tunisia, we spoke with Andrew F. March—professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and previously the Goldman Faculty Leave Fellow at the Crown Center from 2020-2021 who has interviewed Ghannouchi extensively and is co-writing a book with him—about the history of Ennahda, how it has responded to Saied's actions, and where the movement goes from here.
Ennahda is often described as the "most moderate" of the mainstream Islamist movements in the Arab world, and the continued centrality of co-founder Rached Ghannouchi is usually presented as the primary reason. Can you say something about how Ennahda compares to other Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ghannouchi's role?
Ennahda was originally formed in 1981 as the Movement of Islamic Tendency (MTI). While it was founded as a movement in the tradition of other modern Islamist parties or organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, it was distinct in a number of important ways. First, the ideological inspiration behind the movement was more diverse than that of other Islamist groups. While MTI leaders like Ghannouchi and others were steeped in the thought of Islamist ideologues like Hassan al-Banna, Abul A'la Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, they were also influenced by figures such as the Algerian historian and philosopher Malek Bennabi who offered a much broader and less dogmatic perspective on issues like democracy and civilization. Second, from their founding declaration in 1981, the MTI openly endorsed multi-party democracy as the path out of authoritarianism. Third, the ideology and practice of the movement was developed partly in reaction to broader events in Tunisia outside of Islamist circles, particularly the secular democratic opposition to Habib Bourguiba and leftist protests in the late-1970s and early-1980s.
The MTI bore the brunt of a state crackdown after 1981, with thousands of members (including its top leadership) serving multi-year jail stints. Yet, during the brief thaw after the 1987 coup that brought Zein El Abidine Ben Ali to power, the movement renamed itself the Ennahda [Renaissance] Party, sought legal recognition, and competed in local elections in 1988. Their success in those local elections provoked a second major crackdown, which resulted in Ghannouchi and other leaders fleeing into exile from 1989.
Another major difference with the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements is Ennahda's internal culture and organization. Ennahda is governed according to a public charter by which representatives are elected to a general conference, which then elects some of the members of the Shura Council (other members are appointed) that, in turn, forms a smaller Political Bureau. The internal culture of the party, while not without its hierarchical elements, is thus much more inclined toward broad and public deliberation and contestation than groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. But I should note that some other Islamist parties—such as those in Kuwait, Jordan, or Morocco—may be closer to the Tunisian model than the Egyptian one, which of course must also be attributed to the repressive conditions in Egypt since the 1960s.
Since the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, some issues internal to the party—which it has had to face within the context of sharing power with other parties—can be characterized as a question of "moderation" versus "conservatism," but much falls outside of this dichotomy. During the post-revolution transition period, the question of how hard to fight for a clause in the constitution to declare the shariʿa a source of or constraint on legislation (which Ennahda eventually dropped, with Ghannouchi's support) was perhaps one such issue. Toward the end of President Beji Caid Essebi's rule (he died in office in July 2019), the issue of how to respond to the inheritance equality bill was perhaps another. But many of the most contentious issues, both within Ennahda and with other political forces, cannot easily be classified in terms of "moderation" or more conservative Islamism. Ghannouchi often pushed a very pragmatic path with regard to dealing with figures of the old regime and issues of political and economic reconciliation. He judged that it was better to avoid giving potentially counter-revolutionary figures a motivation or an excuse to undermine or reverse the democratic transition, which is of course what happened on July 25, 2021 at the hands of a very unlikely figure. In other words, these are not "ideological" issues within Islam but issues of political judgment.
Some supporters of Saied's moves describe them as a people's revolt against the incompetent, corrupt, and divisive post-revolution governments led or influenced by Ennahda. Ghannouchi allegedly has said that: "The problem of the Islamists is that they are appreciated in opposition and hated as soon as they are in power." What does he mean here? What special challenges does Ghannouchi see Islamists in power as facing?
While Ennahda and Ghannouchi personally are largely regarded favorably in the West as "moderate Islamists" who are committed to democratic institutions, in Tunisia there is a widespread aversion, bordering on hatred, for the party amongst wide swathes of the population, particularly ideologically committed secularists and many in Tunisia’s powerful trade union movement (The Tunisian General Labor Union, or UGTT). You can see this aversion in two ways. First, the party's aims and ideology are frequently described by opponents in shockingly exaggerated terms. Many Tunisians will portray them as having aims barely distinguishable from more radical groups elsewhere, such as the Afghan Taliban and other groups who call for the wholesale application of shariʿa. Second, Ennahda appears to receive a disproportionate amount of targeted blame for the general malaise of parliamentary governance in Tunisia, which failed badly at delivering the tangible benefits hoped for from the 2011 Revolution. After the dissolution of the transitional government in the wake of a political crisis in 2013, Ennahda never provided the prime minster for the many coalition governments that governed between 2014 and 2021. As either the largest (2019-) or the second largest (2014-2019) party in parliament, the party was indispensable for forming governments. But any power held by Ennahda was always wielded in coalition and partnership with other parties or through behind-the-scenes relationships, like that between President Essebsi and Ghannouchi. In fact, Ennahda was always vastly underrepresented in these governments, at least as measured by ministerial portfolios.
What Ghannouchi is referring to, I believe, is a sense that Ennahda is overly criticized for normal political practices (e.g., leveraging electoral advantage, pursuing institutional power) and blamed for the actions of others, such as the assassination of two leftist figures in 2013 by radical jihadi groups. Such blame blurs or erases the stark boundaries between the establishment Ennahda and radical groups in the country. Similarly, during the protests leading up to Saied's coup on July 25, 2021 and its popular reception afterwards, Ennahda seemed to serve as the face for much of the corruption and inefficacy of governments led by other parties. It is not a stretch to say that while Ennahda deserves their share of the blame for the malaise of post-2011 parliamentary governance, this is compounded with more emotional and visceral antipathy for the party from lots of quarters, especially widespread secularist rejection of the idea of even a post-Islamist "Muslim democratic" party in the political system.
It is also important to remember that Ennahda is the only party that has been frequently threatened with dissolution and proscription by other parties. While other parties have paid the electoral consequences for their performance in government or their internal contradictions, only Ennahda is faced constantly with a challenge to its very legitimacy and legality as a democratic political party.
How has Ennahda responded to the events of July 25, 2021 and subsequent developments?
Ennahda has responded cautiously to the July 25 coup, aware that Saied, who is backed by the military, could use any provocation to justify a broader crackdown (which he frequently threatens as it is). Ennahda is also aware that Saied and his anti-democratic moves remain broadly popular among Tunisians, certainly more popular than the dissolved parliament and even the idea of democratic governance itself.
Ennahda has responded to the coup and Saied's popularity, predictably, by allying with a broad anti-coup coalition, culminating in the formation in April 2022 of a so-called National Salvation Front that brings together five parties from the dissolved parliament and numerous civil society groups. While it is clear that Ennahda supporters are often the largest group amongst anti-coup protesters, the most visible figures in the anti-coup movement are from secular and leftist civil society organizations.
There are two worst case outcomes for Ghannouchi and Ennahda. The first is, of course, a total crackdown and imprisonment of opposition figures, especially those from Ennahda. This may not end up being as bloody and wide-reaching as in Egypt in 2013, but it would be a devastating coda to the Tunisian democratic transition that began in 2011. The other worst case outcome from Ennahda's perspective is that Saied peels off other forces in the former parliament and anti-coup movement by striking a deal that essentially excludes Ennahda from the political process. This could take the form of a constitutional provision that bans parties with a religious identity, or something to that effect. Saied has already shown signs of draping his coup in Bourguibist secularist rhetoric, publicly disavowing fasting during Ramadan and leaving out of his draft constitution a phrase from Article 1 of the existing constitution that declares Islam to be the state religion.
So, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, Ennahda benefits from the fact that Saied’s coup was not directed at a single party but, instead, at the entire democratic system. It is important to remember that Ennahda held barely 25% of the seats in the parliament after 2019. Many other parties and forces see their vital interests as being threatened by this coup. On the other hand, many of those entities may be happy with some kind of restored political system—one certainly more presidentialist than before the coup—in which Ennahda is essentially excluded from politics. Thus, Ghannouchi and his party are walking a narrow path of both avoiding a political response to the coup that would provide easy justification for a broader crackdown and maintaining unity of purpose with non-Islamist parties that have no love for Ennahda.
Ennahda's most recent response is to turn away from the primary demand of restoring the parliament as it was constituted as of July 25, 2021 and, instead, call for a "national dialogue" through the newly formed National Salvation Front, formally headed by established social democratic opposition figure Ahmed Najib Chebbi. Chebbi has declared that the alliance does not seek a restoration of the parliament of July 2021, but that it would remain "committed to the legislative institutions and organizing early elections."
There have been news reports of growing tensions within Ennahda since the events of July 2021. What has happened internally within the party over the past year? Is Ghannouchi losing influence?
There was a large exodus of 113 senior Ennahda members last September, led by former Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki. The group blamed Ghannouchi and Ennahda for failing to form a common front to oppose Saied's coup, although it is not clear what more could have been done in the climate immediately after the coup, and the group's official public statements were extremely vague on what they say should have been done. However, these internal Ennahda tensions had been building for a long time prior to July 2021. At the 2016 Party Congress, for example, there was an effort to change the movement’s charter so that Ghannouchi would henceforth only nominate half of the Executive Bureau, with the other half of the Bureau selected by the Shura Council after internal party elections. Tensions increased further in 2019 when the Executive Bureau (still under Ghannouchi's control) replaced the heads of 30 of the 33 lists for parliamentary elections and installed Ghannouchi at the top of one of the lists (he had not previously run for parliament). Some of the replaced figures were important leaders of the movement dating back to the 1980s and the years of harsh state repression. At the time, these moves led some activists to speculate that Ghannouchi was looking to sideline rivals who had independent bases of support. In September 2020, 100 senior members signed a letter demanding that he not run for party president again. Ghannouchi rebuffed these challenges—and he did so on a questionable legal basis in terms of Ennahda's governing charter—raising some accusations that his behavior within his own party is authoritarian.
It should be noted that these divides relate mostly to Ennahda's internal governance structures and rules, not its ideology. A separate story can be told about the rise of the Karama Coalition—which ran to Ennahda's Islamist right in 2019—comprised mostly of politicized Salafis and some disillusioned Ennahda activists. Karama won 21 seats (based on 5.94% of the popular vote) in the 2019 Parliament, enough to make it the fourth largest party in the Tunisian Parliament.
In January 2022, Saied outlined a roadmap for the country for the rest of the year: form a committee to rewrite the constitution; hold a referendum on July 25 to approve it; and hold parliamentary elections on December 17. Saied has locked Ennahda out of the envisioned national dialogue as one of the parties of "traitors and thieves." You know Ghannouchi's writings and have had extensive conversations with him about his ideology. Does Ghannouchi's corpus provide any sense of where he thinks Tunisia goes from here?
Ghannouchi is a savvy and patient politician. His political judgment and inclinations are a somewhat different matter from his corpus of political and theoretical writings. At the moment, the national referendum on Saied’s draft constitution has not yet been held and terms for participation in the planned December elections have not been revealed. Ghannouchi and other Ennahda leaders are certainly waiting first to see what the president is proposing. The worst-case scenario for them is that the party (and possibly Karama) are proscribed and membership in them made illegal. Almost as bad would be a measure falling short of proscription but which would seek to ban them from entry into the new system. Equally important is what Saied's plans are for other, secular, opposition parties. This will determine whether Ghannouchi thinks that Ennahda stands alone or can keep drawing on a broader anti-coup alliance.
Throughout the turbulent decade after the Revolution, there appears to be one single constant in Ghannouchi's behavior: He advocates what he thinks is most expedient at any given crossroads for the survival of Ennahda and the freedom of its leadership and activists. Ennahda paid a considerable reputational and electoral cost for many of its more conciliatory moves over that decade: It won 37% of the vote and 89 seats in the 2011 elections, 27.8% and 69 seats in 2014, and 19.6% and 52 seats in 2019. But as of 2021, Ghannouchi would surely argue that not only had Ennahda remained standing and at liberty but also that it remained the largest parliamentary bloc (despite its continued loss of seats) and an indispensable kingmaker for any coalition government. Thus, what Ghannouchi and Ennahda do now will surely depend on Saied's next steps. But I would wager that the movement would do almost everything it can to avoid a violent response on their own part to state repression. Even wide-scale civil disobedience or a general strike, with Ennahda out on its own, is to me very unlikely. While Ghannouchi would surely like to complete his storied political career having navigated Ennahda through this crisis and back into inclusion in the political system and acceptance by other forces (such as the UGTT and secular political parties), I believe that he would do anything to avoid giving other parties and state institutions the satisfaction of having revealed Ennahda to be a violent or "terrorist" group after all. My guess is that he will avoid confrontations that could give the state an excuse to escalate repression, even if this means he ends his career in house arrest—or even prison—hoping that the movement lives to resurface another day.
For more Crown Center publications on the evolution of Tunisian politics in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution, see: "Tunisia's Democracy Unsettled," "The Tunisian Public and the Rise of Kais Saied," "Lessons from the Jasmine and Nile Revolutions: Possibilities of Political Transformation in the Middle East?" "Drivers of Democracy: Lessons from Tunisia," "Islam and Democracy in Practice: Tunisia’s Ennahdha Nine Months In," and "Why Did Women's Rights Expand in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia?"
The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.