Global Insight

February 14, 2013 3:31 pm

Nahda party reflects a divided Tunisia

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Political crisis exposes internal rifts in Islamist organisation
Soldiers help mourners carry the coffin of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid during his funeral procession©Reuters

Soldiers help mourners carry the coffin of Chokri Belaid, Tunisia's murdered opposition leader, during his funeral procession

In the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution, Rached Ghannouchi, the then exiled leader of the banned Nahda party, shrugged off suggestions that his Islamist organisation should adopt a gradualist electoral approach to allay its critics’ long-held suspicions.

Why must Islamists be less ambitious than others when it comes to the ballot box, he asked, insisting that Nahda’s aim was to win, not lose, the October 2011 elections.

Some within Nahda, however, might be ruing that victory today, since it translated into taking responsibility for governing a confused nation and a struggling economy.

In fact, after last week’s assassination of Chokri Belaid, the anti-Islamist leftist politician – a killing that shocked the country – it was Hamadi Jebali, the Nahda secretary-general and the country’s prime minister, who called for the dissolution of the government Nahda shares with two non-Islamist junior partners and the formation of a non-partisan technocratic administration.

This was greeted with relief by many in the liberal opposition who have been complaining about the government’s performance and its alleged negligent approach towards radical elements involved in attacks against politicians, women and artists. Mr Jebali, many reasoned, was rising above partisan considerations and reaching out with a message of national unity at a time when it was painfully needed.

Curiously, though, Mr Jebali’s own party emerged as a main opponent of his strategy. Worried about the message of failure his move would project, but also afraid of undermining its own electoral legitimacy, it has insisted that a technocratic government was both a bad idea and a dangerous precedent.

Nahda officials and analysts say that some form of compromise could yet emerge, perhaps with some of the most sensitive ministries going to independents. But the government crisis has exposed larger problems that will not be easily resolved, not least the apparent internal rifts within an Islamist organisation that rose too fast from the ashes in the wake of the 2011 revolution.

There’s a lot of disenchantment among Nahda supporters because the pace of change has been very slow

- Shadi Hamid, Brookings Doha Centre

On one level, Nahda’s structure, which had been decimated by the regime, was reconstituted with great efficiency, and some of its officials, only recently out of jail, moved into cabinet posts. But politicians who deal closely with Nahda say that the party is home to different Islamist trends, with a base that is more radical than its leadership.

Nahda officials insist that talk of internal splits is a fiction created by their critics and the media. Yusra Ghannouchi, daughter of the party’s leader and a spokeswoman, says there are various views aired and decisions are reached democratically.

Some analysts say the party, like others in Tunisia, is divided between those who are true believers of democracy and those who are under the illusion that ruling Tunisia is a divine right. Others see differences relating to the extent of the party’s commitment to the project of Islamising Tunisian society.

While secularists accuse Nahda of being too soft on the puritanical Salafis, who are expanding their base by preaching a socially strict Islam, a wing of the party is closer in its views to the Salafis and considers that the leadership is departing from its Islamist mission.

“There’s a lot of disenchantment among Nahda supporters because the pace of change has been very slow,” says Shadi Hamid, expert on Islamist movements at the Brookings Doha Centre.

The government crisis has underlined the balancing act that Tunisia’s Islamists are performing. They find themselves torn between satisfying the various political trends within their movement and an increasingly vocal and organised opposition, parts of it refusing to countenance any whiff of Islamisation in a traditionally secular state.

Those who are fiercely secular argue that allowing Salafi sheikhs to open Koranic schools and associations is, in itself, putting unacceptable pressure on society.

Although the ideological divide is far less pronounced within society at large, it is at the centre of the political tensions. Even if Tunisia avoids another major act of violence such as last week’s assassination, the struggle for power between different visions of society will continue to be played out ever more passionately as the country approaches elections towards the end of the year.

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