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.