Roundtable on the Tunisian Elections: Islamism, “Secularism,” and the Old Regime

This panel is part of the Junior Fellowship, “Authority and Meaning: Islam after the Arab Spring”

Panel Speakers:

  • Professor Malika Zeghal, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard
  • Professor Roger Owen, A. J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard
  • Amira Yahyaoui, Yale World Fellow and Founder of Al Bawsala
  • Moderator: Youssef Ben Ismail, Harvard PhD student at the Department for Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

On November 10, a panel convened at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard to discuss the impact of the Tunisian election results on post-Arab Spring Islamism, the meaning and purchase of the term “secular,” and the concept of a “revolution” that may be returning old faces to public office.

Youssef Ben Ismail commenced the discussion with a historical overview of the context in which the October 26 Tunisian legislative elections were held. He identified four trends that emerged out of the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections: the Islamist trend, represented by Ennahda; the leftist trend, such as the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Takattol, who had been opposed to the Ben Ali regime before 2011; the populists, like Al-Aridha; and the ‘ancien regime,’ which emerged as a reactionary force linked to the Ben Ali regime.

Ennahda won 89 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly and governed in a coalition with CPR and Takattol. The 2014 elections, however, saw a shuffle in the party landscape. New parties emerged and old ones disappeared from the political arena. Nidaa Tounes, an eclectic mix of anti-Islamist, neo-Bourgouist parties founded in 2014 was the victor, followed by Ennahda.

Youssef opens the discussion by posing two questions to the panelists: first, what are the implications of these election results? Do they signal a change or continuity in the behaviour of the Tunisian electorate? Second, what will be the fate of the Islamists?

Professor Malika Zeghal begins the discussion by noting the significance of the fact that Tunisia has now held two successful elections whose results have been accepted by all political players, and which have resulted in an alternation in power. She notes that Tunisia’s success happened despite of and because of the chaos in the Arab world. The Egyptian experience served as a cautionary tale for the Tunisians. However, Professor Zeghal problematizes the secularist vs. Islamist narrative in Tunisia. She contends that there is no secular party in Tunisia. Nidaa Tounes is an anti-Ennahda coalition of parties rather than an anti-Islam one. She also adds that despite Ennahda’s loss, the party managed to come in second place, and as such is an important player. Nidaa Tounes is an eclectic mix of parties which might start fragmenting once they have the challenge of actually governing. In the likely case that this happens, Ennahda will re-emerge as the biggest player in Tunisian politics.

Nonetheless, Professor Zeghal posits that the current political cleavage in the Tunisian electorate between Islamists and non-Islamists might crystallize. The old dichotomy of Islamist vs. non-Islamist carried on from the 2011 elections and indeed became more pronounced. She questions whether this bi-polarization will deepen to include factors other than religion, such as the economy.

Amira Yahyaoui draws a distinction between an anti-Islamist party and an anti-Islam party. The latter is a laique party in the French sense. She underscores the fact that no party in Tunisia is laique; no party can rule Tunisia if it models itself as anti-Islam. Amira examines the role of geopolitics in Tunisia’s most recent election. She argues that the fear of ISIS and Islamist extremism played a role in the political calculus of voters. However, despite this fear and the fact that Ennahda failed in governing over the past few years, 30% of the electorate still voted for the party. She predicts that Ennahda currently has a wider support base than Nidaa will have after five years of governing. This is why Nidaa Tounes is hesitant to govern alone. It would not be surprising if Nidaa Tounes formed a coalition with Ennahda in order to share the blame and accountability for governance.

Amira predicts that there will be fragmentation inside parliament. Nidaa Tounes is an umbrella for a variety of different parties with different agendas. It isn’t sustainable. But Ennahda is also vulnerable. It did not lose a single MP in the 2011 Constituent Assembly because all of these MPs were part of the Ennahda core; they had faced repression at the hands of the Ben Ali regime for belonging to the party. The current MPs, however, are not from that core, so it likely that they can split from the party.

Amira then discusses the direct effects of Egypt’s coup on the transitional process in Tunisia. She recounts the experience of Ennahda’s members during the summer of 2013. They were terrified by news of Morsi’s arrest and the crackdown on the Brotherhood. This made Ennahda much more willing to compromise. The day that Morsi was deposed, Ennahda dropped the Shari’a clause in the preamble of the constitution. Many MPs who had regularly attended all the Assembly’s sessions were absent because they had left Tunisia. There was a palpable fear that the Egyptian scenario would be replicated in Tunisia. Amira’s monitoring organization noticed a significant shift in the discussions when the Assembly reconvened; Ennahda gave many concessions. The only issue on which Ennahda took a tougher stance on was the clause regarding exclusion of the old regime.

Amira remarks that Ennahda is the most internally democratic group in Tunisia. Much of the organizational structure can be attributed to Ghannouchi, who lacks the arrogance of the Muslim Brothers, and likes to model Ennahda as the underdog that is open, democratic, compromising, and a key in Tunisia’s success.

Professor Roger Owen emphasized the exceptionalism of the Tunisian transition. He remarks that Tunisians extended the transition deadline in order to be as inclusive as possible in their outcomes. Meanwhile, a genuine civil society sector arose, which was able to monitor and hold the governmental institutions accountable. He stressed that it is difficult to know when the revolutionary process ends, because the youth are still dissatisfied. The economic situation hasn’t improved, and it doesn’t look like it will any time soon.

Amira concludes the talk on an optimistic note. She hypothesizes that the next five years will be very difficult for Tunisia, and the country will face more instability, fragmentation, and change. However, it will emerge victorious, and it will provide hope for the rest of the Arab world too.