Tunisian policemen keep watch in front of the Oqba ibn Nafa mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, in the city of Kairouan May 19, 2013.
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

To read the newspapers is to believe that Tunisia, the small country that sparked the Arab Spring, is the only one still on a recognizable path to democracy, in large part thanks to the conciliatory nature of the country’s leading Islamist party, Ennahda (“Renaissance”). There is truth in this narrative. At key moments of the democratic transition, Ennahda, which has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, distinguished itself from other Brotherhood derivatives by granting concessions to its secular opponents in the interest of preserving stability, even going so far as to cede to a technocratic government the political power it earned through free and fair elections, an unprecedented move for an Islamist party. And now, Ennahda may again be making history.

In late May, over one thousand members of Ennahda convened in the resort town of Hammamet for the movement’s 10th party congress. Delegates discussed and voted on seven measures—from the party’s internal procedures to Ennahda’s political and economic platforms. Arguably the most significant outcome of the congress, and the one subsequently grabbing international headlines, was the adoption of a motion to separate Ennahda’s political and religious activities. In the run-up to the decisive vote, 74-year-old Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi (who the party reelected as president) issued a series of statements indicating that Ennahda was poised to leave behind “political Islam” and embrace “Muslim democracy.”

The statements and vote have been variously interpreted as signaling everything from a radical departure for the Islamist movement and the end of political Islam in Tunisia to a rhetorical ploy aimed at easing Western concerns while Ennahda pursues its long-term goal of establishing an Islamic state. A close reading of Ghannouchi’s remarks and the congress’ decisions suggests a more complicated picture. Although the move to distinguish between the Islamist party’s religious and political functions is significant, it is too soon for observers to begin drafting obituaries for political Islam in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks during the movement's congress in Tunis, Tunisia May 20, 2016.
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement, speaks during the movement's congress in Tunis, Tunisia May 20, 2016.
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

MUSLIM DEMOCRATS

In a May 19 interview with the French daily Le Monde, Ghannouchi affirmedthat Ennahda “is leaving political Islam in order to enter Muslim democracy. We are Muslim democrats who no longer refer to ‘political Islam.’” Instead, “Ennahda is a democratic, civil party whose points of reference are Muslim and modern civilizational values.” To the delegates gathered in Hammamet, Ghannouchi described Ennahda as a “national democratic party devoted to reform, based on a national reference drawing from the values of Islam.”

In part, the change in terminology is a matter of branding. In his interview with Le Monde, Ghannouchi noted that violent groups such as al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) have appropriated the term “political Islam” and given it a decidedly negative connotation. In labeling its members “Muslim democrats,” Ennahda can distinguish the movement from the violent groups that also identify as Islamist. The rebranding may also be intended to reassure readers of Le Monde that Ennahda does not find common cause with those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere. Still, the generous loan packages that France, the EU, the World Bank, and the IMF announced even before Ennahda’s decision suggest that the party should be less concerned with winning over the West and more worried about secular Tunisians who remain skeptical of Ennahda’s long-term goals.

Since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in Tunis five years ago, nearly 6,000 Tunisians have left the country to join jihadist groups in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. During its tenure in government from 2011 to 2013, Ennahda came under fierce public criticism for what many perceived to be a lax approach to Islamist extremism at home. The current rebranding is, therefore, partly aimed at convincing a domestic electorate that the country’s leading Islamist party has adopted a firm stance against extremism. In this vein, Ghannouchi told delegates to the congress that Ennahda remained uniquely suited for counterterrorism at home because it had drawn “the clear and definitive line between Muslim democrats and extremist and violent trends that falsely attribute themselves to Islam.”

The decision to disavow the term “political Islam” also reflects a conceptual argument, namely: since political Islam in Tunisia achieved what it set out to achieve, it is no longer necessary. In his interview with Le Monde, Ghannouchi asserted that political Islam emerged in reaction to two regional trends: dictatorship and an extremist form of laicism, the French variant of secularism in which expressions of religious identity are discouraged, if not outlawed, in public. Given that the Tunisian uprising installed a democracy and did away with both dictatorship and laicism, “there is no longer a justification for political Islam in Tunisia.” In his address to the Ennahda delegates, Ghannouchi implied that political Islam had run its course when he recounted that Ennahda had evolved “from an ideological movement engaged in the struggle for identity, when identity was under threat, to a comprehensive protest movement against an authoritarian regime, to a national democratic party devoted to reform.”

Ghannouchi is downplaying key aspects of Islamist ideology here, portraying Ennahda as something akin to a civil rights organization advocating on behalf of Muslims who, for decades, could not freely practice their faith. Ennahda was banned under the former regime, with hundreds of its members thrown in jail, tortured, or forced into exile. As such, the drive for greater religious and cultural recognition for its members, and the achievement of social justice more generally, were always components of Ennahda’s societal project. But they were never the only components. Informed by its roots in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda also sought to establish an Islamic state, guided by Islamic law (sharia), in which devout Muslims could live openly, achieve social justice, and so on.

A supporter of the Islamist Ennahda movement shouts slogans during a campaign event in Tunis October 24, 2014.
A supporter of the Islamist Ennahda movement shouts slogans during a campaign event in Tunis October 24, 2014.
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

The 2011 uprising and Ennahda’s subsequent ascendance appeared to offer the movement a chance to fulfill its ideological aspirations after decades of repression. But Ennahda quickly encountered obstacles. When the party’s bloc of parliamentarians proposed a constitutional provision that would have made sharia “a source” of law (some wanted it to be “the source”), fierce opposition from secular parties forced the group to withdraw the proposal. Ghannouchi reassured his supporters that the movement could remain true to its Islamist identity because Islamism fundamentally meant promoting the broader aims of the sharia, such as justice and liberty, rather than specific regulations outlined in the Koran and Sunna (the sayings and behaviors attributed to the Prophet Muhammad). He could also point to articles in the new constitution affirming that Islam is “the religion of the state” and committing the state to imparting an “Arab-Muslim identity” to its youth. The episode was telling both for what it suggested about the ideological commitments many Ennahda members had retained, and for what it revealed about Ennahda’s ability to adapt to political constraints.

But it became harder to claim success once Ennahda bowed to public pressure and stepped down in 2013 after what was widely viewed as a dismal performance in government; it was harder still after the 2014 legislative elections, when 70 percent of the electorate voted for parties other than Ennahda and the Islamist movement lost 20 seats in parliament, falling behind the secular Nidaa Tounes (“Tunisian Call”) party. These setbacks may explain why Ghannouchi has taken to highlighting identity and democracy promotion, issues on which his movement can more convincingly claim success in the past five years.

SEPARATION OR SPECIALIZATION?

Ennahda’s defeat at the polls in 2014 prompted what turned out to be nearly two years of internal discussion regarding the future direction of the party. The repeated postponement of the party congress reportedly stemmed from the leadership’s difficulties in convincing the base that Ennahda should be a political party and leave overtly religious activities to a separate, if related, body. In the end, although delegates to the Congress rejected the term fasl (separation), they approved a takhassus (specialization) between the movement’s religious and political activities. Thus, for example, Ennahda leaders can no longer preach in mosques or hold leadership positions in religious associations. As Ghannouchi explained in Le Monde, “we need to specify the difference between political and religious activity. The arena of political activity is not within the mosque.”

Precisely where the movement will draw the boundaries between public life, politics, and religion remains an open question.

Such moves partly reflect political considerations. Ghannouchi told Le Monde that Ennahda “wants a party that speaks of daily problems, of families’ and individuals’ lives, and not a party that talks [to voters] about the last judgment, paradise, and so on.” As if to demonstrate what he meant, he dedicated the second half of his speech at the congress to outlining a series of reforms aimed at combating corruption, spurring economic growth, reducing unemployment, and improving conditions for the country’s youth—all goals that Tunisians have consistently ranked as the nation’s highest priorities. With local elections scheduled for March 2017 and parliamentary elections to follow in 2019, Ennahda knows it needs to expand its base of support if it is to rebound from the 2014 defeat. Whatever else may be driving the movement’s current transformation, focusing on the “daily problems” of the electorate makes good political sense.

It is too soon to tell whether the relatively narrow decision to require members who preach in mosques to give up politicking will spell a more dramatic move to separate religion and politics in Tunisia. Ghannouchi did tell delegates to the congress that “We are determined to keep religion far from political struggles and conflict,” even as he was keen to stress that separating religion and politics should not be equated with separating religion from public life. “We are astonished to see the insistence of some to exclude religion from public life,” he proclaimed.

This begs the question of what will happen when political conflicts concern the place of religion in public life. Precisely where the movement will draw the boundaries between public life, politics, and religion remains an open question. In his interview with Le Monde, Ghannouchi noted that “Neither the [Tunisian] law nor religion should interfere with people’s private lives. In the public sphere, the law is applied. In the private sphere, it’s individual liberty.” So if, as he stressed to Ennahda’s delegates, religion is to inform public life, and that same public sphere is to be regulated by the law, then Ghannouchi’s statements would suggest a closer connection between religion and the law than his secular adversaries are likely to accept.

WHAT NEXT?

In the end, the extent to which the Ennahda congress changes Tunisian politics may depend on the extent to which Ennahda itself changes. Analogies have been drawn to Turkey’s experience in the early 2000s, when the Islamist AKP recast itself as a socially conservative party and highlighted its economic platform in an effort to broaden its support base. Ennahda may have the AKP in mind, but the more relevant model today is arguably Morocco, where an Islamist party with Brotherhood roots legislates in parliament and even occupies the prime ministry but leaves overtly religious activities to its sister organization in civil society. Whether Ennahda changes its internal structures; where the party comes down on divisive legislation, such as the regulation of problematic imams or the recent proposal to remove the religious imprint on the country’s inheritance laws; and the degree to which the party campaigns on religiously oriented themes in the upcoming election cycles will give observers a clearer picture of Ennahda’s longer-term plans and more ammunition for the debate about the continued evolution of political Islam in Tunisia and in the wider Middle East.