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How big were the changes Tunisia’s Ennahda party just made at its national congress?

- May 25, 2016
Tunisian Ennahda party supporters wave flags in October 2014 in Tunis. (AFP)

On Monday, the leading Tunisian political party, Ennahda, concluded its 10th congress since 1979 with a startling declaration. In a move widely reported as a landmark separation of mosque and state, Ennahda announced it was separating politics from preaching. It also unveiled plans to rebrand and reboot the party, broadening membership to recruit new voices and perspectives. Western coverage characterized the congress as abruptly separating religion and politics. Inside Ennahda, though, these changes are understood as formalizing long-brewing trends within the party – introducing revisions that tweak, but do not transformatively sever, its relationship to religion.

To implement this new vision, Ennahda decided to no longer allow its party leaders to simultaneously hold leadership positions in civil society organizations, including religious associations. Leaders are also now prohibited from preaching in mosques, even informally or occasionally. This means Ennahda leaders with a well-known penchant for preaching – such as Sheiks Sadok Chorou and Habib Ellouze, both reelected to the Shura Council – must either stop proselytizing or give up their elective positions.

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Second, Ennahda simplified its membership requirements to ease entry of Tunisians who may like its economic and policy directions but felt put off by previous entry barriers. Applicants no longer require endorsement of two existing party members and – in a stunning shift – the word akhlaq (morals) has, according to congress delegates, been stricken entirely from the list of membership requirements. These changes may reduce pressure to adhere to the party’s previous conservative lifestyle expectations.

Leaders and base-level members of Ennahda at the congress rejected the word fasl (separation) to describe the party’s updated relationship between religion and politics.

“It’s not a separation, it’s a takhassus (specialization),” Shura Council member and Ennahda member of parliament Farida Laabidi said, echoing other nahdaouis (Ennahda members). “Our references will remain Islamic, but it’s not logical for us to try to do everything from tarbiya (religious education) to making economic policy.”

“This is about each [side] doing what they do best,” said Habib Ellouze, who gravitates to preaching more than politicking. An initial skeptic, Ellouze supports the changes, arguing that division of labor will strengthen both spheres. He is widely expected to leave the Shura Council to focus more freely on preaching.

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Ellouze and many other Ennahda leaders think such specialization will equip Tunisia to more effectively combat the rise of jihadi extremism. For Ennahda, the solution to Salafi jihadism pivots importantly on religious reeducation in the so-called good school of Tunisian Islam. Many nahdaouis feel their preaching-oriented leaders are specially equipped and even obligated to battle errant extremists on their own religious terrain.

Similarly, most Ennahda members see broadening membership as a step that will strengthen the party’s political capacity. During the 2014 parliamentary elections, Ennahda dipped its foot into non-Islamist recruiting waters: Its lists included a handful of prominently placed candidates who were not members. Six of these won seats in Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc. “Their participation showed inclusion [of outsiders] didn’t jeopardize group cohesion or threaten the party’s values,” said Ennahda parliament member Sayida Ouinissi.

To move beyond a static share of votes – a ceiling Ennahda leaders estimate hovers around 30 percent – the party thinks it must expand past its core constituency of legacy members and their families to attract new supporters. Competitively blossoming into a fully fledged national political party, leaders say, also requires swapping Ennahda’s baggage-ridden Islamist label – a word often associated with the violent likes of Boko Haram and ISIS – for positive messaging. Invoking Germany’s Christian Democrats, Ennahda formally announced it identifies as “Muslim democrats,” a tactical rebranding that also reflects nahdaouis’ self-perceptions and frustration at accusations that Ennahda condones violent extremism.

Such symbolic and substantive shifts recall the comparatively pluralistic, early years of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, when Islamist-oriented boutique parties gave way to a broader, conservative national party with a popular economic platform and stance against military tutelage. Similarly, Ennahda’s policy priorities have shifted from defending Arab-Islamic identity to addressing material concerns of average Tunisians, including security, job creation, administrative inefficiency and corruption. After Tunisia’s protracted and divisive debates on sharia and blasphemy in 2012, Ennahda has proclaimed that it has learned from its mistakes and will be increasingly responsive to the people’s problems.

The tripling in size of Ennahda’s internal constitution – from about 40 to 146 articles – further reflects the party’s desire to professionalize and aggressively recruit new voters. After years of playing defense in various transitional governments, Ennahda made careful use of its past two years on the political sidelines to improve its offense. Although congress attendees estimated that as many as 10 to 15 percent of Ennahda voters might abandon the party out of frustration with its various compromises, the party could recruit even more new voters in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Many Ennahda leaders and supporters were initially skeptical of formalizing changes to the hizb-haraka (party-religious movement) relationship. Yet by spring 2016, most had come to support the revisions, which were carried by strong majorities of two thirds or greater in voting at this weekend’s congress.

Formally distancing haraka from hizb (party) activities was relatively easy for Ennahda because – despite the existence of loosely affiliated charities – it had functioned as a political party since the revolution. Oppression under former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali precluded Ennahda, unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, from establishing a powerful, competitive network of charities and religious associations.

Ennahda also delayed this congress for two years to engage in an intensive internal consultation process, including exhaustive discussions about the proposed changes among leaders and between leaders and the base. Most Tunisian political parties are institutionally weak and organized around big personalities, but Ennahda has managed to develop far more representative internal institutions. Strong communication, combined with party members’ acceptance of the one-person, one-vote principle in congresses and Shura Council deliberations have helped Ennahda leaders usher through a raft of potentially controversial changes while keeping the majority of base-level supporters on board.

Party leaders additionally framed the changes as natural outgrowths of Ennahda’s historical evolution rather than a sudden shift. This approach helped party members understand the changes as the culmination of Ennahda’s long-awaited and long-thwarted evolution toward being a professional party. “Under Ben Ali, we weren’t allowed to do real politics,” a longtime Ennahda leader, Abdelhamid Jelassi, said. “Instead we had to find other ways to work and organize – in mosques for example.”

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This narrative recasts Islamism as a kind of situation-contingent liberation theology – an oppositional framework developed during decades when dictators banned Ennahda from usual forms of political engagement. Although suitable for that time, many Ennahda leaders now argue that Islamism is ill-adapted to a context in which liberation (i.e., a seat at the democratic table) has been achieved, and in which religiously oriented parties must govern pragmatically. “Islamism is not an ideology for governing,” said high-ranking Ennahda member Said Ferjani in March. “It’s a language of opposition.”

For this 10th congress to adopt a broadening, proactive vision, Ennahda members and leaders also needed first to feel confident that democracy had become the only game in town. The first phase of Tunisia’s transition was characterized by fear-driven competition between secularists and Islamists, each side seeking to engrave its identity into the foundations of Tunisia’s new constitution and post-revolutionary state, in part so that each could ensure its survival and a seat at the table. Nahdaoui Islamists faced hostile media and government administrations, and the party feared counterrevolutionary forces in the style of Egypt’s 2013 coup could reverse Tunisia’s democratic gains and send Islamists back to prison or into exile.

Nahdaouis’ fear of outside infiltration had historical roots and emotional components, and presented a challenge to the goal of expanding the party’s membership. Nahdaouis initially critical of this congress’s changes, for instance, often feared new members might “infiltrate” the party’s structures, as agents of Ben Ali’s party had often tried to do, or use the party to further careerist or opportunist aims. Another, often unspoken, fear percolated among some Nahdaouis: that opening up the party might dilute the movement, stripping members of the safe, family-protected feeling it had provided. Members often say that, during years of political imprisonment, torture and exile – when their own blood relatives, paralyzed by fear of regime repercussions, failed to come to their aid – fellow Ennahda members stood by them. Opening the party up can therefore threaten these tight-knit yet often inward-looking cultures of community.

Despite its latest moves, Ennahda’s internal culture is likely to remain religiously conservative. Delegates to the 10th congress, held in the seaside town of Hammamet, were hosted in hotels that do not serve alcohol. Prominent religious thinkers including Egyptian Islamist intellectual Fahmi Huweidi, a guest at the congress, are likely to remain close to Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi. Despite the important substantive and symbolic changes made, the overall texture and feel of Ennahda is likely to remain Islamist-inflected for a long time to come. Such elements of internal cultural continuity have helped party members stay at ease, feeling at home despite shifts in direction.

Mustering the will to change the formula that had, for so many decades, seen Ennahda through political persecution, required preserving a certain amount of continuity. It also required confidence that Tunisian politics had shifted to a democratic system – one in which defensive tools that Ennahda had developed to cope with the oppressive, surveillance-oriented rules of the old dictatorial game would be unnecessary and irrelevant.

A central figure who should be credited with this congress’s changes, therefore, is someone quite unexpected: current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Once a scathing critic of Ennahda, the founder of Nidaa Tounes has changed his tune. Essebsi and Ghannouchi – often comically referred to as “the two sheiks” – began their collaboration by engineering an exit from the 2013 Bardo crisis, the political impasse that threatened that summer to topple Tunisia’s nascent transition. That backroom bargain paved the way for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning National Dialogue Quartet to mediate a way forward.

In the most dramatic moment of the congress, Caid Essebsi himself strode on stage as the event’s keynote speaker to roaring applause and fervent chants of “Beji! Beji!” from among the thousands in attendance. For anyone familiar with the foundational animus of Nidaa Tounes (established in 2012 to oppose Ennahda), the divisive events of 2013 and the highly polarized elections of 2014, which pitted the parties against each other, the moment was surreal.

The sense of relief among the crowd was palpable: A man many had feared would throw them in prison had, instead, participated in a watershed moment of Nahdaoui normalization. Instead of reprising 2014 themes lambasting the party as backward, criminal or supportive of terrorism, Essebsi has instead endorsed Ennahda as a party “moving in the right direction,” a reliable coalition member and legitimate player on Tunisia’s political stage.

Western news coverage of Ennahda’s congress has focused on a sudden, supposed separation of mosque and state. Rather, the most important thing to emerge from the congress is a new push for reconciliation. The congress delivered a referendum upholding the politics of tawafuq (reconciliation) spearheaded by Ghannouchi and Essebsi. In vote after vote, congress delegates – including prominent national leaders and low-ranking representatives from Tunisia’s countryside – overwhelmingly endorsed, with margins of two thirds or greater, the political direction of consensus and reconciliation favored by Ghannouchi in recent years.

This policy of pragmatic inclusiveness demonstrates that Ennahda as a whole – not just its comparatively progressive central leadership – has done a significant amount of political learning over the past four years. Ennadha now faces the tough challenge of creating coalitions that are not just comfortable, but are also concretely constructive, to translate its learning into actual advancements in Tunisia’s fight against terrorism, administrative inefficiency, corruption and youth unemployment.

Monica Marks is a PhD candidate at Oxford University, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral fellow with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France.