Tunisian Islamist Ennahda Party leader and founder Rached Ghannouchi (C) gestures as he gives a speech during a campaign rally on October 15, 2014 in Bizerte, north-east of Tunis, ahead of the country's parliamentary elections. Campaigning officially began on October 4, 2014 for Tunisia's October 26 parliamentary election, with 13,000 candidates vying for places in the 217-seat National Assembly. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

If your rival wins the largest share of votes, then you’ve lost the poll — that’s how elections work. So why is Rachid Ghannouchi arguing with me about the meaning of victory and defeat?

“In a classroom, if you’re the second best student, you’re not a loser,” says the leader of Nahda, Tunisia’s Islamist party.

Maybe so. But we’re at the Nahda headquarters in Tunis, not at school. And the party has been reeling from the November defeat in parliamentary elections, won by its secularist rival that went on to grab the presidency as well.

An aide intervenes to explain my reasoning. Mr Ghannouchi shrugs. He understands me perfectly well and, though he usually prefers interviews in Arabic, he is conversing in English. Persisting in his apparent denial of defeat, the 73-year-old Mr Ghannouchi, a shrewd politician who measures every word, insists I am posing the wrong question. “We only lost 20 per cent of the support we had. The question is how we were able to maintain 80 per cent of our support.”

Remember the regional political context, he adds. “We’ve been affected by the political atmosphere in the region: in 2011, political Islam was ascendant; in 2014, political Islam and democratic change were not ascendant,” he says. “The point is how we succeeded in stopping the wave of decadence in Tunisia.”

It’s a fair point. Nahda is the lone survivor of the shortlived revival of political Islam in the Middle East — and Mr Ghannouchi is the last man standing. He may have lost an election or two but he still has a party with a large popular base and a chance of an electoral comeback.

Mr Ghannouchi has also learnt when to push for immediate impact and when to take the long view. Not so long ago, he was in exile in London, his party shattered by repression and his comrades in jail. He returned home, after an absence of 20 years, in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime.

Now, as other Islamist parties in the region are devastated by a combination of counter-revolution, chaos and their own failings in government, Mr Ghannouchi has done a favour to political Islam: he has offered an example of a responsible party that abides by democratic rules.

Although he will not say it, Nahda’s priority today must be self-preservation. It is probably why the party is participating in the government announced this week. It is also why Mr Ghannouchi has been trying to reassure Gulf states that have led a campaign against Islamists that his party is uninterested in exporting its Islamist ideology. “We have no ambition to export anything, except oranges, dates and [olive] oil.”

Events in Egypt also loom large in Nahda’s thinking. In Cairo, a hapless Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, rode to victory after the 2011 revolution but was overthrown two years later in a military coup that enjoyed popular support. The demise of Egypt’s Brotherhood has been swift and brutal.

Mr Ghannouchi drew the right lessons from Egypt. He smiles when I ask about Mr Morsi and says Egypt is a lot more complex than Tunisia. But I have heard talk of internal Nahda criticism of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

After the turmoil in Egypt, Nahda faced growing instability at home and opposition demands for the resignation of its government. Mr Ghannouchi agreed to a new technocratic government. He also struck a relationship with Beji Caid Sebsi, his fiercest political opponent, who has since been elected president.

“I can call him anytime,” he says. When Mr Sebsi’s party won the parliamentary vote, Mr Ghannouchi called to congratulate him.

Nahda’s leader seems overly optimistic in his assessment of the fate of political Islam, arguing that fresh pressure for democratisation in the Arab world is inevitable and will allow for an Islamist comeback. “It’s a matter of time and of the size of the sacrifice that has to be paid,” he says.

If he continues to play his cards right, his Islamist party’s future will be secure. Some within Nahda still fear a return to repression but Mr Ghannouchi is confident democratic gains will not be reversed. “Tunisia can be threatened by chaos and by terrorism but not by despotism.”

roula.khalaf@ft.com

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