Shortly after the Ennahda Party won the post-Arab Spring elections in Tunisia in October 2011, Ennahda’s then-Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali was quoted saying: “We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing”. This, of course, was three years before the Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared at a mosque in Mosul in the summer of 2014, announcing restoration of the Islamic caliphate. By sixth caliphate, Jebali was referring to the first righteous caliphs after the Prophet Mohammad (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, Ali), while adding a fifth, Omar Ibn Abdul-Aziz of the Umayyad Dynasty. That single statement sent shivers down the spine of Tunisian seculars struggling to rebuild their country after ridding themselves from long-time president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, prompting the socialist Ettakatol Party to snap: “We do not accept this statement. We thought we were going to build a second republic, not a sixth caliphate”.
If a caliphate was indeed what Ennahda had in mind for Tunisia, then they were in for a big surprise this week. President Kais Saied has dismissed the Ennahda-led government and suspended parliament, putting an end to the Ennahda era in Tunisian politics. Ennahda’s historic leader Rachid Ghannouchi, serving as parliament speaker until last week, was denied entry into the Chamber of Deputies and has, since then, been banned from traveling. Caliphates don’t generally fall through the executive orders of constitutional lawyers-turned-politicians like President Saied. The Islamists are crying foul; seculars are rejoicing.
The Ennahda Party remains, despite all attempts at rebranding, an Islamist movement inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. After emerging from the underground in 2011, they tried to assure liberals by proclaiming their commitment to civil rights, reform, and democracy. Ghannouchi and his followers found great inspiration in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey, whom they tried to copy down to the very last detail, considering AKP leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan their role model. Ghannouchi was even quoted saying: “In Turkey and Tunisia, there was the same movement of reconciliation between Islam and modernity. We are the descendants of this movement”.
Ennahda history of resistance to Ben Ali’s rule, along with its Islamic credentials, scored a 37% plurality vote in parliamentary elections 2011. They came in second during the 2014 elections, but then managed to regain the upper hand in January 2016 after its rivals splintered due to internal divisions. Five months later, Ghannouchi tried giving Ennahda a facelift at the party’s Tenth General Congress in May 2016, saying that although still committed to Islam, they were widening their powerbase, moderating their rhetoric, putting an end to proselytizing, while reforming from within. Speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde he explained: “We are Muslim democrats who no longer claim political Islam. We don’t want an imam to lead, or even be a member of, any political party”.
Ghannouchi made these comments at a time when political Islam was on the back foot, and concessions seemed like the logical thing to do. The Muslim Brotherhood regime of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi had been removed in Cairo, and the reverberations had echoed across the Arab world, putting a dampener on the ambitions of Brotherhood-affiliated groups. According to a survey conducted by the Washington DC-based International Republican Institute, Ennahda voters support for expanding the role of Islam in government had dramatically decreased from 84% in 2014 to 62% in 2017. By rebranding his party, Ghannouchi hoped to expand its powerbase beyond traditional conservative circles to include career politicians, technocrats, and working professionals.
Similar Stunts by Jabhat al-Nusra and Hamas
Weeks before Ennahda’s Tenth Congress, however, Ghannouchi had attended a high-profile Muslim Brotherhood conference in Istanbul. Ennahda did not change its name, and nor did it part ways with the Brotherhood. When the Free Destourian Party submitted a parliamentary draft resolution to classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in Tunisia, the bill was aborted by Ennahda. The decision to rebrand and distance itself from the Brotherhood seemed like a carefully coordinated effort, born out of political pragmatism rather than an ideological shift.
Two months later, another militant Islamic group tried pulling off a similar stunt in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra, the formal Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, came out with an official statement changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and formally severing its links to “any other external entity,” ostensibly referring to Al-Qaeda, without quite claiming to sever its connection. It dropped the name “Al-Nusra” from its title, which had been copied from a phrase in a classical jihadi book, “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance,” penned by Abu Musab al-Souri, a close associate and confidant of Osama Bin Laden. Like Ennahda, Al-Nusra was ostensibly parting ways with its notorious parent organization in an effort to attract a wider powerbase and portray itself as a more moderate, and thus acceptable, player within the regional and international community.
Those back-to-back statements by Ghannouchi and Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani were followed by Hamas issuing its revised charter exactly one year later, in May 2017, downplaying Islamic rhetoric, accepting Israel’s 1967 borders, and also, distancing itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Name changes aside, it was business as usual for all three groups in Tunis, Syria, and Gaza. The first to confirm that in Tunis was Ennahda co-founder Abdelfattah Mourou, who appeared on the Tunisian Echourok TV in May 2016 saying: “Ennahda has not and will not change its identity, and it will stick to its Islamic references and strategy”.
When the Gulf crisis erupted in 2017, Ennahda leaders showed their true colors, standing rank-and-file behind Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad, refusing what they described as Saudi and UAE dictates calling on Qatar to close down the offices of Al-Jazeera TV, or at a bare minimum stop giving prime airtime to Hamas leaders, and expelling Hamas from Doha. When former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi died in June 2019, Ennahda conducted a prayer for him right in the midst of a parliamentary session in Tunis, and during live coverage on Al-Jazeera TV Ghannouchi eulogized him as a “martyr”.
Cuddling up to Terrorist Groups
Although Ennahda claims that it does not approve of violence as a means of achieving political objectives, it has frequently dabbled with parties that do, like the Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), the North African rebrand for Al-Qaeda. In January 2012, Ghannouchi met with AST leader Seifallah Ben Hassine (Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), a Salafi-jihadist, to discuss mutual strategy. Nine months after the meeting, a video went viral on social media showing Ghannouchi strategizing with AST leaders. He was heard saying: “The Islamists must fill the country with associations and establish Quranic schools everywhere.” He then added: “The seculars are still controlling the media, economy, and administration. Therefore, control them will require more time. I tell our young Salafis to be patient. Why hurry? Take your time to consolidate what you have gained.”
In September 2012, one month after the video was leaked, AST protestors led by Ben Hassine launched an attack at the US Embassy in Tunis, killing two people. Ben Hassine was then sanctioned by the U.S. for his Al-Qaeda links. Many asked questions about what exactly Ghannouchi had discussed with AST, ahead of the attack. Undaunted, Ghannouchi took off to Khartoum to an Islamist conference, hand-in-hand with his two friends, Khaled Meshaal of Hamas and Mohammad Badie, Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The Murder of Chokri Belaid
On 6 February 2013, Ennahda was accused of complicity in the murder of prominent Tunisian lawyer Chokri Belaid, a member of the opposition Democrats’ Patriotic Movement. Belaid had famously criticized Ennahda and its leadership, saying, on the night before his assassination: “All those who opposed Ennahda become the targets of violence”. His wife said she would file murder charges against the Ennahda Party and Ghannouchi, described him as “personally” responsible for her husband’s death. Hamadi Jebali—who had previously called for the sixth caliphate—was serving as prime minister at the time. He called the killing “an assassination of the Tunisian Revolution,” while Ennahda referred to it as a “heinous crime”. Angry young protestors torched the offices of Ennahda in the towns of Mezzouna and El Kef, also storming their premises in Gafsa, capital of the southwest of Tunisia.
It was those same young men who took to the streets of the Tunisian capital on 26 July 2021, celebrating the president’s decree against Ennahda. Constitutional controversies aside, for the young protesters who took to the streets in 2011, this was reclaiming their revolution—and avenging the blood of Chokry Belaid.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Amara, Tarek. “Tunisia Islamist causes outcry with caliphate talk,” Reuters (November 15, 2011): https://www.reuters.com/article/tunisia-islam-caliphate-idAFL5E7MF3T620111115
 Amara, “Tunisia Islamist causes outcry with caliphate talk”.
 Lewis, Aiden. Profile: “Tunisia’s Ennahda Party” BBC (October 25, 2011): https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15442859
 “Ennahda is ‘Leaving’ Political Islam” Wilson Center (May 20, 2016): https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/ennahda-gives-political-islam
 Meddeb, Hamza. “Ennahda’s uneasy exist from political Islam,” Carnegie Middle East Center (September 2019): https://carnegieendowment.org/files/WP_Meddeb_Ennahda.pdf
 Zayat, Iman. “Tunisian party wants to classify Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorist organization” The Arab Weekly (June 8, 2020): https://thearabweekly.com/tunisian-party-wants-classify-muslim-brotherhood-terrorist-organisation
 Alami, Mona. “Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding is more than simple name change,” Al-Monitor (August 5, 2016): https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2016/08/jabhat-al-nusra-sever-al-qaeda-focus-local-syria.html
 Wintour, Patrick. “Hamas presents new charter accepting a Palestine based on 1967 borders,” The Guardian (1 May 2017): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/01/hamas-new-charter-palestine-israel-1967-borders
 Marks, Monica & Ounissi. “Ennahda from Within: Islamists or Muslim Democrats?” Brookings Institute (March 23, 2016): https://www.brookings.edu/research/ennahda-from-within-islamists-or-muslim-democrats-a-conversation/
 Cherif, Youssef. “Ennahda and Mors’s Eulogy” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (July 2, 2019): https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/79420
 Zelin, Aaron Y. “Tunisia: Uncovering Ansar al-Sharia,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (October 25, 2013): https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/tunisia-uncovering-ansar-al-sharia
 Morris, Loveday. “Uprising in Tunisia as regime critic is murdered” (February 6, 2013): https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/uprising-tunisia-regime-critic-murdered-8483975.html
 Morris, “Uprising in Tunisia as regime critic is murdered”.
 Marks, Monica & Fehim, Kareem. “Tunisia moves to control fallout after opposition figure is assassinated,” New York Times (February 6, 2013): https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/world/africa/chokri-belaid-tunisian-opposition-figure-is-killed.html