Tunisia’s as the one success story of the “Arab spring” is a status that has long been fragile, and it has now entered a new phase. Massive protests have been ongoing since at least January about the economic mismanagement and corruption of the Islamist government led by Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi of the Ennahda Party. After months and months of the Ennahda providing no answer except brutality to the spiralling disorder, on Sunday, 25 July, President Kais Saied, who shares executive powers with the prime minister and parliament, stepped in to dismiss Mechini and freeze parliament for thirty days while a transition to a new prime minister is undertaken. The removal of the Islamist premier gives Tunisia a chance to reset its democratic course, but there are great dangers ahead as Ennahda and its allies try to thwart this.
The popular rage at Ennahda has been widespread and heartfelt in Tunisia, with the Party’s bases and offices all across the country being targeted by protesters. Ennahda and its leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, who doubles as the speaker of Parliament, have tried to rebrand themselves as “Muslim democrats”, rather than Islamists, and some analysts have gone along with this. In reality, Ghannouchi’s originated with the Muslim Brotherhood and he never left that milieu. The effects in Tunisia after Ghannouchi and his party came to power in 2011, namely the spread of radicalism and increasing authoritarianism, have been exactly what one would expect from a Brotherhood-derived party.
WINEP scholar Aaron Zelin has written of Ennahda’s creation and evolution in his recent book, Your Sons are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, which has been reviewed at EER. Ghannouchi had contact with the Syrian Brotherhood and Tablighi Jamaat, and brought these ideas back with him to Tunisia, where he began propagating them in the late 1960s. Over the next ten years, Ghannouchi’s movement proceeded mostly by proselytism (da’wa).
What changed Ghannouchi’s calculations, as Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi explains in The Politicisation of Islam: A Case Study Of Tunisia, was the Islamic Revolution in Iran. One effect, a trendsetter for much that has come since, was that in the summer of 1978 the Marxist students at Tunisian universities started finding common cause with the Islamists, whom they had previously regarded with some suspicion. After the Shah left his country in January 1979, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned in triumph, replacing the most powerful pro-Western government in the region with an Islamic republic, it gave an enormous fillip to Islamist movements of all sects; it gave them the confidence that their utopian dream was possible.
“The example of Iran”, said Ghannouchi, “shows us the awakening has come.” This was the view of the current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, described by one Iran scholar and former intelligence official as “Iran’s favorite Sunni jihadist poster boy”. The relationship between Iran and the Brotherhood is something EER has covered before.
The Tunisian government had virtually expelled the Islamist movement by the end of the 1980s, as Zelin narrates, but through the 1990s there were serious advances made by Tunisian Islamism, both among this exiled movement that congealed into something altogether more capable and radical after working in Bosnia alongside Al-Qaeda and Iran, and domestically where a Salafi trend began to emerge that would briefly stage an insurgency in the country in 2006-07.
After the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, Ghannouchi was able to return victorious, not unlike Khomeini, after spending twenty-two years in exile in London. For reasons not entirely clear, even at this time Ennahda was being referred to as a “progressive Islamist” movement, but Ghannouchi had issued effective death threats from London against political opponents, such as the secular academic Mongia Souahi.
Once in power in Tunisia, Ennahda took two decisions that had a profound effect: the first, what Zelin calls its “original sin”, was releasing—under considerable popular pressure—a dangerous number of jihadi militants as part of the liberation of “political prisoners”, and, second, was trying to avoid confrontation with Al-Qaeda, represented by its local front “Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia” (AST). In truth, Ennahda rather admired AST’s program and simply dissented from its tactics; the aim was to work in parallel to it.
By the time, the Ennahda cracked down on AST, labelling it a terrorist organisation in August 2013, the damage was done. Indeed, the trigger for the crackdown was the assassination of two Leftist politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, which ISIS claimed and for which many liberal and secular Tunisians hold Ennahda responsible.
AST had the space under Ennahda to recruit and spread its message, and took full advantage. Forms of online messaging were pioneered that would later be taken up by the Islamic State (ISIS). Not coincidentally, Tunisia became one of, if not the single largest contributor of jihadists to ISIS, significantly because of the spread of jihadist ideology permitted by Ennahda and the space given to Al-Qaeda to lay down logistical foreign fighter networks, which then defected to ISIS.
Faced with mass opposition because of the spread of extremism in a country with a strong secular population, Ennahda, having formally renounced Islamism, tried, in early 2015, to formally renounce power, while retaining a preponderant influence in a “popular front” set-up. The anti-Islamist current in Tunisia was strengthened by a series of ISIS attacks in the country, notably at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015 and near Sousse in June 2015. There had been earlier attacks that outraged Tunisians, but these attacks also directly impacted the tourist industry (most of the dead in Sousse were British) on which many Tunisians depend for their livelihoods.
Ennahda’s attempt to blend into the background of a broad “coalition” government worked for a time, but with the continuance of terrorist attacks, despite an ostensible campaign of suppression in recent years, and the lack of economic progress, even on so large and basic an issue as corruption, Tunisians have once again demanded accountability from those in power—and, when examined, they have realised it is still Ennahda that has power.
Ennahda’s defenders point to the pandemic and the lockdowns as the cause of the misery in seeking to exculpate the Party; this cannot be sustained by the timeline. The economic disaster Ennahda has presided over was at boiling point by late 2018, with even some Islamists complaining about the appalling state of the healthcare system, the lack of justice, and the jihadists “smuggling weapons and foreign currencies”. This is not to overstate the virtues of the other parties in Tunisia—there is plenty of dysfunction to go around—and the constitutional-legal framework itself creates problems, but the fact remains Ennahda has had a dominant influence over the state and its institutions in this time.
The main geopolitical fault-line in the Middle East at the present time is between the pro- and anti-Islamist camps. Tunisia, having been heading one way, is now at a potential turning point.