Tunisia’s Islamist-oriented political party, Ennahda, appears to have won slightly more than 40% of the popular vote in constitutional assembly elections on October 30th, the first elections since protests there ignited the Arab Spring last January. In December 2010 and January 2011, in the first days following popular revolutions in Tunisia and then Egypt, commentators emphasized their non-religious nature and the central role that ideologically neutral, social-media-toting youths played in toppling authoritarian governments. So the impressive, outright electoral victory of a major, religious political party in “secular” Tunisia should give pause for reflection.
Two questions seem particularly important: 1) Why did Ennahda do so well?, and 2) What does their success say about the future of Islamist-oriented parties elsewhere in the region?
Why did Ennahda do so well?
Commentators were not wholly off the mark on Tunisia’s secularism. Survey data indicates that Tunisian society is indeed the most secular in the region. World Gallup Poll results for 2010, for example, report that only 36% of Tunisians report they attend Friday Mosque services every week, compared to 64% of Libyans, 61% of Egyptians and Moroccans, and 55% of Algerians. While 36% is still rather high when compared to Western Europe, and while a much higher proportion of Tunisians (92%) still identifies itself as Muslim, Ennahda’s electoral victory cannot be read as a simple connection of the party to a religious population.
Rather, Ennahda’s success reflects the party’s ability to connect its religious identity and political vision to a wider, less-religious public, including many of the relatively non-ideological youth who participated in the revolution. Thus, in the days since the elections, the party has tried to assure electors of both its economic prowess and its intent to protect Tunisia’s popular political liberties, even while transparently presenting itself as a religiously-oriented party. Throughout the electoral campaign, Ennahda was also able to capitalize on the heavy price it paid for its long history of political opposition to an authoritarian regime. For more than twenty years, from jail cells and in exile, Ennahda’s leaders have preached the need for elections in Tunisia. The credibility associated with such consistent calls for reform, coupled with its identity as a transparent and clearly religious political party, gave it a strength and coherence that other secular and liberal parties in Tunisia lacked.
What does Ennahda’s performance mean for Islamist-oriented parties elsewhere?
On the one hand, Ennahda’s success is a reminder that Islamist-oriented parties remain a potent source of political mobilization in the region, and heightens expectations of their future political role in all four countries of North Africa. With the exception of Libya, however, Islamist-oriented parties will not enjoy Ennahda’s untested sheen of promise and cannot assume that they will be rewarded with votes simply because of their religious identity or because of their status as an opposition party.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while previously barred from power, has been more associated in the public perception with violence and nepotism than Ennahda in Tunisia. Likewise, in Morocco and Algeria, Islamist-oriented parties have little concrete to show voters after more than ten years of participation as legal opposition parties and currently face widespread voter apathy towards all political parties. Islamist-oriented parties in all these countries, therefore, will have to work hard to mobilize voters and push their electoral fortunes towards those of Ennahda.
As these parties seek to do so, the hope is that Ennahda’s success makes its method and model all the more attractive. If there is to be an “Ennahda Effect,” we would expect Islamist-oriented parties elsewhere to seek to 1) burnish clean records; 2) travel towards secular parties; 3) assure less-religious voters; and, critically, 4) focus on the economic grievances which made political reform possible in the first place.
It is difficult to imagine that the consolidation of democracy in the region could take place at this juncture without the help of Islamist-oriented parties. If other Islamists emulate Ennahda and if Ennahda is capable of securing a solid consensus around its new proposed constitution, one that can win over Tunisia’s secular parties and their constituents, then sustainable democracy in North Africa might not be so far away, and the Arab Spring might really begin to bear tangible fruit.
Michael D. Driessen is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar and Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University, Rome (Italy). He is currently writing a book on Catholic and Muslim political movements in the Mediterranean. Links to Michael’s recent publications, in addition to an occasional blog on religion and politics, can be found at: www.michaeldriessen.com.