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How Egypt's coup really affected Tunisia’s Islamists

- March 16, 2015

Supporters of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party wave flags as they wait for the party’s leader to give a speech on Oct. 27, 2014 in Tunis following the parliamentary election. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
Conventional wisdom in academic and policy circles asserts that Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, compromised only after, and as a direct result of, the July 2013 coup that deposed Egypt’s then-President Mohamed Morsi. The assumption often accompanying that Egypt-centric projection presumes Ennahda would have necessarily adopted a Muslim Brotherhood-style maximalist approach had Islamists won a numerical majority in Tunisia’s 2011 elections. Both propositions dismiss critical specificities of the Tunisian scenario, including Ennahda’s historically long-term logic, the importance of domestic anti-Islamist pressure from leftists, secularists and groups associated with the former regime, and the extent to which Ennahda ceded key compromises well in advance of formally handing power to Mehdi Jomaa’s caretaker government on Jan. 28, 2014. Rather than fundamentally altering Ennahda’s overall strategy, the coup that toppled Morsi and subsequent crackdown on Brotherhood-oriented groups reinforced pre-existing postures of pragmatism and gradualism inside Ennahda that have been crucial to its survival in Tunisian society.
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which took a majoritarian approach to power in the wake of Egypt’s revolution, Ennahda adopted a number of farsighted, participation-oriented positions that evinced a much thicker understanding of democratic politics. In early 2011, for example, when Tunisia’s transitional body, known colloquially as the Ben Achour Commission, began debating what type of electoral system Tunisia would have, Ennahda’s leadership contributed to creating the conditions for coalition-building – and their own electoral marginalization – by supporting a proportional representation (PR) over a Westminster-style first past the post (FPTP) system. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, who experienced FPTP elections first hand during his 22 years of exile in London, correctly predicted that deploying this system in Tunisia would result in a coalition and democracy-inhibiting landslide victory for Ennahda. Political scientist Alfred Stepan has written as well that a Westminster-style FPTP system would have resulted in Ennahda sweeping approximately 90 percent of seats in the October 2011 elections, instead of the nearly 40 percent plurality it won. Ghannouchi and other Ennahda leaders instead supported a PR system that benefitted smaller parties, reducing Ennahda’s own share of votes in the 2011 election by a staggering 50 percent.
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For Ghannouchi and other top leaders in Ennahda, the touchstone moment shaping this minimalist decision was Algeria’s 1990 and 1991 elections, when the Islamic Salvation Front’s (FIS) dominance in municipal and the first round of parliamentary elections spooked the regime, which then canceled elections and initiated a broad crackdown against Islamists. That experience, and the bloody civil war that ensued in Algeria, powerfully impacted Ennahda’s thinking during the 1990s and 2000s. Survival, Ennahda leaders surmised, meant stepping slowly and strategically, careful to reassure vested interests and society at large that it did not intend to wrest control of democratic institutions to impose something resembling an Islamic state. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) failed to internalize the lessons of Algeria. Squeezed by the judiciary and elements of the military that made governance fraught with difficulty, the FJP opted to double down in its attempts to assert authority. As in Algeria, powerful demonstrations of Islamist force fueled opposition rhetoric auguring an Islamist takeover. In Tunisia, however, Ennahda leaders practiced more restraint. Regularly referencing the experience of FIS in Algeria, they remained sensitive to suspicions that Islamists would instrumentalize electoral victory as a means towards illiberal, majoritarian dominance. Ennahda therefore adopted a more minimalist approach and, unlike the Brotherhood, stayed true to its pre-election promises of supporting coalition governments and not running or officially endorsing presidential candidates in 2011 and again in 2014.
Immediately after Tunisia’s 2011 elections, in which Ennahda won an approximately 37 percent plurality, the party moved to form a coalition government. After reaching out to various secularly-oriented parties, it ultimately partnered with two: Congress for the Republic (CPR), led by long-term human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, known in Tunisia as Ettakatol, led by opposition politician Mustapha Ben Jaafar. Though accusations were made that Ennahda marginalized its partners, this three-party “Troika” coalition stayed together from 2011 to 2013. During the Bardo crisis of August 2013, in which protests led by unelected leftist, secular and former regime oriented figures threatened to dissolve Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, CPR and Ettakatol stood alongside Ennahda to preserve the institution of the Constituent Assembly until constitution writing was complete.
Importantly, Ennahda’s coalition with CPR and Ettakatol didn’t coalesce de novo after the 2011 elections, but rather had roots in a long series of cross-ideological talks between Tunisian opposition actors in the 2000s. These talks involved dozens of independent opposition activists, human rights-defending civil society groups and political actors opposed to the regime of then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, including leaders of Ettakatol, CPR and Ennahda. In documents produced in Aix-en-Provence and Rome in 2003 and 2005, parties to the talks signed onto core principles – including commitments to create a democratic political system with popular sovereignty (sayadet al-shaab) as the sole source of legitimacy (ka-masdar wahid lil-sulta) and to realize equality between men and women. In 2007 these actors – who in 2005 formed a movement called the October 18 Collective – released a document titled “Declaration on the Rights of Women and Gender Equality” strongly reaffirming support for Tunisia’s 1956 Personal Status Code, which prohibits polygamy and gives women the right to divorce. Ennahda leadership’s willingness to not just talk across the table with secular actors, but codify key commitments with them – such as the primacy of popular sovereignty over sharia, excluding any mention of Islamic law – was therefore expressed formally through a series of negotiations and signed agreements well in advance of both the 2011 elections and Egypt’s 2013 coup.
Ennahda’s stint in power following the 2011 elections tested its leaders’ commitments to pragmatism and gradualism. During decades of oppression and exile, Ghannouchi – who wrote for three decades on the compatibility of democracy and Islamic political thought – along with a handful of other leaders, had elaborated a flexible, ethically based understanding of sharia that prioritized social justice over specific rules (hudud). Soon after the revolution, key figures in Ennahda’s leadership, including Ghannouchi and veteran negotiators of the cross-party 2000s negotiations, stressed that Ennahda would not seek to codify the word sharia. The concept was “shumuli,” or broad enough, to encompass a democratic polity that respected core principles of popular sovereignty, social justice and human dignity. Not all Ennahda members, however, understood or agreed with the views of Ghannouchi, whose writings were banned and largely inaccessible in Tunisia throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Following Tunisia’s revolution, Ennahda therefore began an arduous process of becoming re-acquainted with itself personally, ideologically and organizationally. This process played out very publicly, as a more inflexible, maximalist wing inside Ennahda, led most vocally by former MPs Sadok Chorou and Habib Ellouze, agitated for restrictive interpretations of constitutional language concerning key issues, such as whether or not to tighten wording that would have defined Tunisia as an Islamic state and whether to criminalize blasphemy.
As the drafting process began in early 2012, suspicions that Ennahda secretly harbored fundamentalist, even fascistic aims, ran high amongst leftist and secularly oriented segments of Tunisian society – demographics that are much larger in Tunisia than in Egypt, Algeria and many other Arab countries. Determined and vocal pushback from such citizens, backed by well-networked Tunisian civil society groups, some of whose leaders held similar reservations about Ennahda, put popular pressure on the party to compromise on more permissive formulations of constitutional articles. Such important pushback prompted swift responses from Ennahda leaders, including Ennahda MPs who re-caucused in the Constituent Assembly and even the party’s governing Shura Council itself, whose 150 members sometimes held meetings to discuss and vote on whether and how to reformulate more controversy-creating positions.
Throughout four successive constitutional drafts, Ennahda – affected by popular pressure, debates within the drafting committees and the advice of Tunisian and international experts – softened or walked back its most problematic positions, compromising on a number of important issues long before the Egyptian coup. The language that ultimately made its way into the constitution – the final version of which was ratified by an overwhelming 200 out of 217 total votes on Jan. 26, 2014 – reflected compromises on both political and ideological issues. Ennahda leaders had ceded ground on their core issue of contention: whether Tunisia should have a parliamentary system, as Ennahda wanted, or a presidential system, as opposition parties had sought, ultimately supporting a mixed parliamentary-presidential model in which the president possessed more powers than Ennahda leaders had intended. Compromises on ideology-oriented issues had also been made: The constitution defines Tunisia as a civil rather than an Islamic state and omits proposed language that would have criminalized blasphemy and asserts men and women’s roles “complement one another within the family.” The bulk of these compromises had been worked out in fall 2012 and spring 2013 and were already written into the third draft of the constitution, released in April 2013 – months before the coup.
Egypt’s July 2013 coup did, however, have knock-on effects in Tunisia: It emboldened opposition activists, some of whom formed a copycat Tunisian Tamarod (Rebellion) movement in an effort to force the Troika government to leave power. These activists argued that the Troika had lost all legitimacy and should hand over power to an apolitical, technocratic government immediately. Sensing opportunity, unelected leaders of the main opposition party, Nidaa Tounes, issued calls to dissolve the Constituent Assembly and replace the Troika with a government of technocrats. The Tamarod movement and corresponding calls to dissolve the Assembly, however, remained somewhat marginal until Tunisia experienced its second political assassination: the July 25 murder of Mohamed Brahmi. Brahmi, a low-profile Arab nationalist politician, hailed from the same electoral coalition as Chokri Belaid, a prominent leftist whose assassination just five months earlier, on Feb. 6 2013, shook Tunisian society. Belaid’s assassination provoked huge demonstrations against political violence and spurred widespread speculation in Tunisia that the Troika government and partlicularly Ennahda, which Belaid had often criticized, was directly or indirectly responsible.
If the success of Egypt’s Tamarod movement and deep-seated disillusionment with the Troika’s ability to govern provided the fuel, Tunisia’s second political assassination – that of Mohamed Brahmi – lit the fire. Throughout August 2013, tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside the Constituent Assembly in the Bardo district of Tunis to demand dissolution of the Assembly and resignation of the Troika government. Dozens of opposition MPs resigned. This was a time of great test for Ennahda and its coalition partners. On Aug. 6, Mustapha Ben Jafaar, then-President of the Constituent Assembly, made the controversial decision to temporarily suspend the Assembly’s work and began spearheading the Troika’s efforts behind the scenes to find a negotiated path towards compromise. Members of Ennahda and CPR opposed Ben Jaafar’s decision, viewing suspension of the Assembly as a capitulation to street protesters’ anti-democratic demands. Ben Jaafar himself felt differently. In an interview with Stepan and myself on Nov. 4, 2014, Ben Jaafar explained that decision as a strategic step necessary to preserve the institution of the Constituent Assembly against the anti-democratic demands of pro-dissolution protesters. “Putting the Assembly on recess wasn’t giving the pro-dissolution camp legitimacy,” he said. “These people weren’t as democratic as they said. Instead it showed that I’m sticking with rule of law, I’m sticking with this Assembly… I protected the Assembly.”
For Ennahda’s supporters, the Bardo protests represented an attack on the Troika’s electoral legitimacy and an attempt to place power in the hands of unelected technocrats in Nidaa Tounes’s orbit who might then roll back old regime policies. Ennahda’s base tended to oppose their leadership’s decision to negotiate with Nidaa Tounes and other protest supporters, arguing that such negotiations would legitimize the demands of unelected, anti-democratic forces. Against such opposition, however, Ennahda party leaders – with the crucial mediation of Tunisia’s prominent trade union, UGTT, and three other members of the so-called negotiation “quartet” – worked out a plan to complete the constitution, select an elections board and transfer the reins of government to a technocratic caretaker cabinet. On Jan. 28, 2014, just two days after signing Tunisia’s new constitution into law, Ennahda Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh officially handed over power to technocratic Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa.
Such a technocratic solution to diffusing tensions was itself not without precedent. Cajoled by the heterodox leadership of Ennahda member and then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda ceded a number of key government ministries to technocrats in March 2013. Opposition to Jebali’s decision was initially widespread in the leadership ranks of Ennahda, with some individuals suspecting him of being pressured by figures close to the old regime. Still, Ennahda’s eventual acceptance of Jebali’s decision, demonstrated by the imposition of a mixed technocratic-political government months before the Morsi coup, represents another piece of evidence that Ennahda’s concessions – both political and ideological – were part of a pragmatic pattern that preceded the Morsi coup.
To be sure, the overthrow of Morsi had a palpable impact on Tunisia, emboldening the Tamarod protests, fueling – though not actually sparking – the eventual fire of the Bardo protests, and reminding Ennahda just how unique and fragile its position as a free, democratically elected Islamist party really was. Ennahda party leaders, who had been critical – even derisory – toward the Muslim Brotherhood from 2011 to 2013, characterizing the movement as retrograde, uncooperative and recalcitrant, were deeply moved by the attack on Brotherhood sympathizers in Cairo’s Rabaa Adawiya square. These party leaders began voicing messages of sympathy, saying that no matter their mistakes in power, the Brotherhood did not deserve its undemocratic ouster or the rights-abusing crackdown it received.
The coup may have also softened Ennahda MPs overwhelming support for lustration, which would have excluded persons who held position in Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD), which had been officially dissolved in March 2011, from running in Tunisia’s 2014 elections. Ghannouchi and other key leaders’ ultimate opposition to lustration legislation was motivated more by long-term commitments to political inclusion and gradualism grounded in the lessons of Algeria and the spectacular failure of Libya’s lustration law than the coup in Egypt. Convincing core segments of Ennahda’s leadership who supported lustration, however, that excluding large swathes of old regime-oriented figures (including the leading candidate for president, Beji Caid Essebsi himself) could create coup-friendly conditions likely became easier after Morsi’s ouster.
Rather than terrifying Enanhda into transforming itself overnight from a maximalist actor into a meek collection of scared and chastened Islamists as is sometimes implied, the coup against Morsi reinforced and offered new justification for Ennahda’s pragmatism, gradualism and support for long-termist compromise – tendencies manifested in Ennahda’s historical negotiations and internal evolution, as well as the key compromises it made after the 2011 elections. It is therefore ahistorical to characterize Ennahda’s compromises, particularly its decision to formally relinquish power in January 2014, as mere byproducts of the “Egypt effect,” or to assume that Ennahda would have necessarily adopted the Brotherhood’s domineering, maximalist approach had Islamists held a higher proportion of seats following the 2011 elections. Ennahda’s logic of long termism and track record of cross-ideological compromise indicate that its leadership’s operative logics have been crucially different than the Brotherhood’s. The vocal pushback from secular civil society organizations, the leftist trade union and unelected old regime-associated actors between 2011 and 2013 likewise indicated that Tunisia’s more anti-Islamist oriented social topography created a very different matrix of opportunity constraints for Ennahda outside the halls of elected office than the Muslim Brotherhood faced in Egypt.
Monica Marks is a visiting fellow at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion and a doctoral fellow with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France. She is a doctoral candidate at St Antony’s College, Oxford.