On October 23, 2011, for the first time since independence in 1956, Tunisians were called to the polls in free and transparent elections. They were to choose 217 members of a Constituent Assembly that for a year would play a double role: drafting a new constitution and governing the country.

For many Tunisians, as well as foreigners, the results were something of a surprise. First, the turnout was lower than expected, hovering just over 53 percent, despite serious efforts by the Electoral Commission to get out the vote. Many ordinary Tunisians, it appears, are skeptical of the political transformation in the country since the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Second, the victory of the Islamist party Ennahda was much larger than anticipated. Opinion surveys taken beforehand had predicted the party’s first-place finish, but with a vote oscillating between 20 and 28 percent of the total. In the end, Ennahda obtained 41.7 percent of the vote and, more significantly, won 89 seats in the Constituent Assembly, by far the largest bloc. Third, secular and leftist parties put in a solid performance (though not up to expectations), but their divisions split the secular electorate. No party except Ennahda, therefore, garnered more than 8 percent of the ballot.

While these results were a bit startling, the subsequent negotiations to form a government were reasonably straightforward. Ennahda ended up in a three-party coalition with the Congress for the Republic, led by Moncef Marzouki, a left-wing nationalist party that came in second with 29 seats, and Ettakatol, a social democratic party that finished fourth with 20 seats and is helmed by Mostapha Ben Jaafar. Throughout the campaign, Ennahda maintained it would seek a broad alliance with other political forces to signal Tunisians that partisanship would be put aside. It was the job of all political groups, symbolizing a unified nation, to draft the constitution and usher in the new era, said Ennahda figures. On December 22 the new government was approved. The three-party agreement stipulated that Hamadi Jebali, secretary-general of Ennahda, would be prime minister, Marzouki would be president and Ben Jaafar leader of the Assembly. The agreement also provided for the creation of 42 senior and junior ministerial posts: 19 slots would go to Ennahda, including the Ministries of Interior, Justice, Education, Health and Foreign Affairs, six to the Congress, six to Ettakatol and 11 to independents chosen for professional ability in their respective fields. Finally, the coalition partners agreed to go their separate ways in constitutional debates without paralyzing the government. The Assembly quickly adopted a decree, the “small constitution,” that will regulate government operations until a new national charter is drafted.

The post-Ben Ali order in Tunisia has no exact parallel anywhere, but the French semi-presidential system was clearly influential. In practice, the president, chosen by the Assembly, appoints the prime minister and the two then work together on major policy decisions under the Assembly’s scrutiny. This arrangement might slow deliberations at a time when very important decisions have to be made rapidly in several fields, particularly reform of the security services and the economy, but the advantage is that such major decisions will enjoy a reasonably broad consensus.

In any case, the election results and the institutional arrangements that followed leave Ennahda in position to shape Tunisia’s future.

Explaining Ennahda’s Sweep

That fact, combined with Ennahda’s religious references, makes many secular Tunisians and foreign observers uneasy. Many also wonder where Ennahda’s sweeping victory came from, given that the party was illegal before March 2011 and had been the target of relentless repression for three decades.

A number of explanations have been advanced to account for Ennahda’s success. First, it is said that Ennahda was very quick and skilled in reorganizing its structures across the country after Ben Ali fell on January 14, 2011. This view found partial affirmation in a conversation with Abdelhamid Jelassi, a member of Ennahda’s Executive Committee, who argued: “Given that we are an old party, we have been able to revive our structures immediately after the revolution in January. Militants who were in prison for a long time started working for the party again, together with those who had operated underground.” A second explanation refers to the party’s reputation as an uncompromising opposition movement during the Ben Ali era. A third focuses on the weaknesses of the other parties, with one writer contending that “the large secular parties’ reliance on advertising and reluctance to meet voters outside of the major cities made it difficult for undecided, rural voters to put their confidence in them. The majority of Tunisians showed…that Ennahda not only understood their preferences, but also that Tunisian voters cannot be taken for granted and should be reached out to directly.” [1] Fourth, some attribute the appeal of Ennahda to its constant quest for a democratic national “consensus” on the key institutional matters. The party’s emphasis on democratic principles may have reassured swathes of the population who might otherwise have doubted its commitment to pluralism. As Ali Laaridh, an Executive Committee member who is now minister of interior, said: “In terms of organization, the party’s philosophy is about democratic principles, which are enshrined in our statute and the way in which the party is structured…. The whole structure of the party is very much the product of the wishes of the fee-paying members.” Tunisia, he went on, should be governed in the same way. Finally, the party is said to have swayed many voters with pledges of job creation and replication of the successful Turkish model of economic development.

All these explanations are valid to a degree, but each has the shortcoming of being contingent upon the immediate circumstances of the elections themselves. Without a longer-term analysis, it is difficult to explain why the party did so well — and why it looks and acts as it does. The organizational skills theorem ignores two factors: First, many younger people with no connection to historical Ennahda joined after Ben Ali fled the country, bringing their own interpretations of what it means to work for and support an Islamist political project. Second, other parties that had operated underground or in exile were not similarly effective. The personal histories of Ennahda figures do not make them uniquely credible to Tunisians, as the cases of Marzouki and Ben Jaafar demonstrate; leftists also suffered years of jail and banishment. Secular parties campaigned competently enough to compel the tripartite coalition government that is in office today. As for campaign promises, Ennahda’s did not particularly stand out — all parties promised to generate economic growth and new jobs.

Analyses of Ennahda’s victory to date have missed the crucial element of long-term social change, in particular the unexpected return to religiosity by large sectors of Tunisian society over the last decade or so.

New Social Forces and Islamic Values

Ennahda is not a classic opposition actor, a party run from the top down that takes advantage of a sudden opening in a political system that previously was tightly controlled. It was the activism of ordinary citizens, much of it near spontaneous, that carried the party so far, so fast. Party leader Rafik Abdessalim, now minister of foreign affairs, recognizes this reality: “In 1989, many of the leaders and members went into exile, while 4,000 were in prison…. Before January 2011, there were no offices, no public activities, no visible signs of Ennahda…so the structure of the party today is a product of people’s engagement. You cannot explain everything based on the organization itself and on the idea that what should be done is dictated from the top. Local people are opening local offices of Ennahda. It is not the top of the party opening these offices. It is based on people on the ground.” From this premise, it follows that Ennahda is best understood as a broad movement with multiple constituencies that subscribe to an Islamic ideal that developed during Ben Ali’s rule, under the radar of the regime. These constituencies had few or no ties with the Ennahda of the 1980s, the outspoken Islamist movement of Rachid Ghannouchi, the historical leader who flew home from exile after Ben Ali’s dictatorship ended. They have strong feelings, however, about Ennahda as an idea of what public life and political engagement should be. The party’s political project has been, and to some extent still is, built from below as a continuation of the re-Islamization of society under Ben Ali.

More than 25 years have elapsed since Ennahda’s last chance to operate openly — and the country has changed dramatically in that duration. Three phenomena are noteworthy in this respect: the emergence of a pro-market middle class at ease with much of Western modernity; the enunciation of a stronger Arab Muslim identity that deviates from the Western-inspired and particularly French-inspired project of modernization in post-independence Tunisia; and the parallel emphasis on Islam as personal piety.

During the 25 years of Ennahda’s proscription, Tunisia went through a neoliberal economic transition, with much of the state sector turned over to private hands. Privatization and the wider embrace of market economics were profitable for Ben Ali’s cronies from the beginning, and were implemented in part to strengthen authoritarian rule. [2] But these policies also managed to achieve considerable economic growth, leading to improvements in education standards, health and other indices of human development. [3] The French president, Jacques Chirac, may have been mistaken to speak of a “Tunisian miracle,” but Tunisia did emerge from Ben Ali’s reforms with a larger and newly entrepreneurial, globalized and educated middle class. By the 2000s, however, the Tunisian economy had degenerated into a predatory system, with members of the presidential clan and close collaborators wielding both patronage and repression to acquire larger and larger slices of the pie. The middle class and businesses unconnected to the regime were squeezed. Tunisia, in many ways, became a mafia state — the workings of which are well described by journalists Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet in their exposé La Régente de Carthage, published in 2009. The avarice of the presidential elite not only undermined economic performance, but also aggrieved traditional merchant families, who were forced to share profits with the palace, and the emerging middle class, some of whom fell back into quasi-poverty. One response from the ranks of this middle class was fresh interest in Islamic values as a counter to the crass, corrupt and soulless consumerism of their rulers.

Somewhat independently, Tunisia experienced a revival of the daily practices of Islam, in both rural and urban settings, in part because the regime frowned upon displays of religiosity. The regime’s suppression of a strong Arab Muslim identity from 1956 onward was carried out in the name of modernization, but Islam’s disappearance from public life did not mean that all Tunisians abandoned the faith as part of their identity. In fact, Islam was an important component of the independence movement itself, at least for the wing led by Salah ben Youssef. The hardline secular Habib Bourguiba defeated Ben Youssef’s faction, but many people retained a strong religious element within their interpretations of the country’s history. Over time, Bourguiba’s measures of French-style laïcité — the ban on the veil in public buildings, including schools and universities, the creation of an elitist, French-only education system based on grandes écoles, the state’s absorption of the Zitouna mosque-university — provoked increasing animosity in society. In the early 2000s, a religious reawakening began to offer a model of Arab Muslim identity that promoted values often associated with Western modernity, such as tolerance and self-improvement, and recast those values as forming the core of Islam. The new identity model was a rejection of both Bourguiba’s, which excluded Islam from public life, whether policymaking or regular communal prayer, and the Ben Ali regime’s, which seemed to celebrate conspicuous consumption and corruption in the name of progress.

Along with the revival of Islamic practice came careful attention to the moral issues raised by the modernizing efforts of the regime, as well as globalization. While such modernization brought about certain benefits, many Tunisians felt it also put on display a degree of amorality, notably that of the ruling classes. Since public space was monopolized by the regime, there was greater emphasis on personal morality and comportment, particularly in the form of stricter adherence to religious ritual like fasting during Ramadan or regular mosque attendance. Crucially, pious Tunisians also became more involved in social activism, which was perceived not only as a religious duty, but also as an ethical choice implicitly condemning the regime as unethical. This trend was strengthened by the spread of satellite dishes across Tunisia picking up speed around 2000 and the launch of Islamic satellite channels such as al-Majd and Iqra. For many, access to satellite dishes also meant access to interpretations of Islam that had previously been denied.

Circles of Conviction

Gradually, these vectors of social change came together in an attempt to influence public life. One powerful example is the Qur’an association called Riadh Ennasr, founded in 2007 in Cité An-Nasr, a middle-class suburb north of the capital of Tunis. The six co-founders, all men under 40, lived in Cité An-Nasr but were alienated by what they felt was its hollow, consumerist culture. One of the founders explained that the spark for the association was the realization that the neighborhood “lacked values and warmth.” The local imam parroted the regime’s line and thus lacked the moral qualities that believers should expect and demand. To better themselves, and lead by example, they decided to create a space where people could meet, under the guidance of various religious scholars, to learn to read the Qur’an properly. This project reinforced their own identity as pious Muslims, but it was also social activism in the sense that they believed better training in the Qur’an would spur others to rediscover a genuine Muslim way of life and improve the neighborhood. Implicit in the association was a critique of what seemed to be the dominant values in Tunisia, namely consumerism, corruption and a more general loss of self. The founders felt that Tunisians could cultivate an identity of their own — one that combined the best of what they saw coming from the West and the best from Islam. By April 2010, 1,800 people had signed up for reading classes, 1,200 of them women.

In the battle with the regime for the soul of Tunisia, women were of course strategic terrain — with the veil or headscarf the immediate objective. A 1986 decree stated that it was forbidden to wear the veil in public. The ban was kept in force by the regime with regular campaigns directed against women who defied it. The controversy over the headscarf came to a head in 2006. That year, during Ramadan, the president and minister of religious affairs declared that the veil was out of keeping with the Tunisian cultural heritage and national identity. Police stopped veiled women in the streets and told them to bare their heads. Many women kept on wearing the headscarf, however, presenting an increasing challenge to the regime.

The women attending the Qur’an classes in Cité An-Nasr range in age from 20 to 60. Many are well educated, working as engineers, doctors or teachers. One woman, 52, traced her motivation for attending the classes to practices she learned in her childhood: “My parents were practicing Muslims, so I have always heard the reading of the Qur’an and prayers in the house.” Another woman of the same age explained, “Islam was present even then [under Bourguiba]. We learned the Qur’an at home because a sheikh came to our house.” These memories recall a past when Arab Muslim identity was cherished; they also indicate that, under the radar, such practices always existed. The women felt a need to rediscover these practices to make sense of their own upbringing and identity. A woman in her late thirties emphasized that religious education was necessary “to really understand Islam. Before, we just practiced it. We prayed; we respected Ramadan; we knew the rules. But now we are also living within our convictions. My mother wore the veil, but I did not until two years before my wedding.” All these sentiments are apolitical in isolation, but in the aggregate they highlight the yearning of many Tunisians to reconnect with an identity that they felt was being lost or misrepresented by the regime, particularly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Ben Ali seemed eager to equate Islam with terrorism as a means of pleasing the West. Together, therefore, the attendees of the Qur’an classes performed a political act.

The high attendance at the reading classes pushed Riadh Ennasr to branch out. They set up a kindergarten combining religious and other education with play. It met with overwhelming success, and the association had to acquire another building in the neighborhood to meet demand. Parents pressed the association to help them keep their children exposed to the kindergarten’s educational approach. The solution was a cooperative agreement with an area private school to offer classes where children could continue to study Islam with their friends from the kindergarten. Previously, only state imams had given instruction in the Qur’an — at local kuttabs that pointedly scheduled classes on Sundays, which Bourguiba named the official day off to bring Tunisia into conformity with Western custom. The private school encountered considerable difficulties with the authorities when they applied for approval of a program including classes in the Qur’an. The principal, a woman, had previously been ordered to take off her veil if she wanted permission to run a private school. Rather than cancel the idea of Qur’anic instruction, the principal came up with the idea of offering the classes as “clubs” on a par with dance, drawing and music clubs. It worked. One mother who chose the private school for her two children explained, “We know that our children will enjoy a good education if they are brought up within Islam and have solid moral values.”

The 2011 revolution has freed these social forces that challenge the myth of Tunisian laïcité. An example is the Jerba Association for Solidarity and Development, which was established after the revolution by ten men and two women, many of them professionals, and all of them practicing Muslims in their forties with no experience of associational life. The founders explain that they had always talked about helping others as a duty at the core of their faith. Only after January 2011, however, did the law permit them to harness their spirit of social engagement, with a small initial budget of 24,000 Tunisian dinars (about $16,000). The group decided to use one third of the monies to help Libyans in distress during the war to topple the Qaddafi regime. One third would go to the poor during Ramadan, and the remaining third would be used to back entrepreneurs in Jerba.

Private Islamic activism has been on the rise in Tunisia for a decade, with a number of associations testing the monopoly of the regime over the public sphere and also, since the late 2000s, providing social goods. The civic engagement was partly a response to the state’s retreat from welfare provision and widespread public corruption, but more importantly, it was a corrective to what Hamza Meddeb described as “the disappearance of the moral egalitarianism that the state had promoted under Bourguiba.” [4] Left-wing secular forces focused on economic woes, as during the 2008 uprising in the mining district of Gafsa. [5] But for the rise of private Islamic activism, it was the linkage between ethics and Islam that mattered — their welfare provision was a counter to the immorality of the regime. While the number of active Islamic associations has grown after the revolution, the phenomenon is not a function of the fall of Ben Ali. It is characterized by an Islam that is deeply personal, centered on social activism rather than politics and dependent on local networks for support and expansion. The glue of these networks is a specific understanding and practice of Islam whereby religious precepts apply to those who choose them and are not imposed on the whole of the community. This shift in perspective has filtered up to the Ennahda leadership, which has repeated professions of tolerance incessantly since being legalized, partly to reassure secular Tunisians, but partly to reflect the views and practices of its new members and supporters. As Tirad Labbane of Riadh Ennasr said: “Our commitment to Islam does not mean that we want to impose what we do on others. In that sense, you could say that we are anti-salafi, because we do not approve of imposing behavior. If you want to wear a mini-skirt, it is not my problem; if you do not want to wear the veil, it is also not my problem. Choices have to be left to individuals; the state cannot impose behavior. From the state authorities we ask only that they let us do our work in peace.”

Filtering Up

It would be misleading to draw a solitary bright line of causality between the Qur’anic associations and the Jerba charitable society, on the one hand, and Ennahda’s electoral triumph, on the other. But there is a clear resonance between the respective discourses and practices of the social activists and Ennahda, and membership in the two circles overlaps. The social activism was flourishing years before Ennahda was legalized and allowed to operate freely in 2011, suggesting that many party cadre and constituents come from the social activists’ ranks and brought with them the experiences and values they had formed under Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

It follows that there are echoes of the attitudes of the Islamist sector of society in the official positions of Ennahda. The dimension of personal choice and individual piety, for instance, is notable in how Ennahda members at all levels talk. “You cannot impose Islam on people. It has to be a personal choice, to come from the heart,” explained a physician in Jerba, who supported Ennahda. At the top, Jawhara Ehiss, a member of Ennahda’s office of women’s affairs and a deputy in the Constitutional Assembly, underlines that Islam is a personal matter: “It is not the role of the state to give religious lessons and set religious rules.” In this respect, the stated interest of Ennahda coincides with that of many social activists, who simply want to be left alone by the state to pursue their task as they see fit. It is largely these younger middle-class activists, together with the older generation of militants returning from exile and coming out of prison, who have swollen the ranks of Ennahda and contributed to its success. Their rallying to Ennahda is not necessarily based on the party’s policy statements or past record or on Ghannouchi’s leadership, but on the assumption that it is the political actor whose beliefs are closest to their own.

These Tunisians are skeptical of any drive for a strong state. Young and old, the pious middle class rather supports the quest for a decentralized democracy with a thriving private sector. The new generation believes in free-market forces and wants to take advantage of the fall of the regime to expand the business opportunities they were denied under Ben Ali. The older generation has weathered the repression of the strong, centralized state and wishes to break it up. Their other bond is the attachment to religious values and practices that they believe should inform policymaking, but not dictate it.


[1] Erik Churchill, “Tunisia’s Electoral Lesson: The Importance of Campaign Strategy,” Sada, October 27, 2011.
[2] See Stephen King, Liberalization Against Democracy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003).
[3] See Antoine Sfeir, Tunisie: Terre de Paradoxes (Paris: L’Archipel, 2006).
[4] Hamza Meddeb, “La course à el khobza,” La Revue Economia 13 (November 2011-February 2012), p. 50.
[5] Amin Allal, “La ‘reconversion’ problématique du bassin minier de Gafsa en Tunisie: Réformes néolibérales, clientélismes et protestations en situation politique autoritaire,” Politique Africaine 117 (March 2010).

How to cite this article:

Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle, Francesco Cavatorta "Beyond Ghannouchi," Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012).

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