Tunisian promise(s)

Rachid Ghannouchi: nothing up my sleeve

Al-Nahda (also known as Ennahda), the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of the vote and a leading role in government in last month’s free elections, promises that it will not introduce shari’a or change the secular character of the constitution:

“We are against trying to impose a particular way of life,” Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, 70, a lifelong Islamist activist jailed and exiled under previous regimes, told Reuters. …

All parties agreed to keep the first article of the current constitution which says Tunisia’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. “This is just a description of reality,” Ghannouchi said. “It doesn’t have any legal implications. There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country” …

Samir Ben Amor, a leader of the secularist Congress for the Republic party due to join a coalition with Ennahda and another non-religious party, agreed there was no dispute about maintaining the brief reference to Islam in the first article.

He said there was wide agreement among political parties to strengthen democracy in the constitution by referring to international human rights conventions. “We want a liberal regime,” he said.

Similarly, Al-Nahda promises it will not introduce laws new laws to regulate personal behavior:

“There shouldn’t be any law to try to make people more religious,” said Ghannouchi, whose party has pledged to continue to allow alcohol and Western dress here and pursue economic policies favouring tourism, foreign investment and employment.

The Islamist leader said he interprets sharia, the ill-defined and often confusing complex of Islamic teachings and laws, as a set of moral values for individuals and societies rather than a strict code to be applied to a country’s legal system.

Coalition partners committed to preserving Tunisia’s progressive laws on women’s rights and the family, without including those provisions in the Constitution:

Although all parties agreed to defend Tunisian women’s rights, some of the most advanced in the Arab world, Ben Amor said they could not agree to some feminists’ demands to have the country’s liberal Personal Status Code written into the constitution. “No constitution in the world has that,” he explained. These rights would be protected through legislation, he added.

About a third of the representatives in the newly elected assembly will be women — more than anywhere else in the Arab world, and twice the percentage in the US Congress.

At the same time,

Observers of events in Tunis have reported that radical factions have harassed women to dress more traditionally.  About 500 women gathered in the capital to protest these developments, and were granted a meeting with Prime Minster Beji Caid Essebi to raise their demands.

The campaign created the conditions for aggressive and intimidating public shows of zealotry. Anecdotally, I’ve heard two stories of lesbians and gay men being harassed on the streets or in taxis during and after the election.   In an alarming incident two weeks before the poll, the offices of a TV station that showed Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis — about religious oppression of women in Iran — were attacked and defaced by a crowd of Islamist men and women, some armed.

Nonetheless, there’s no reason now to doubt the apparent broad support in Tunisia for preserving the frame of the secular state, or to suppose that it will change in coming years. I tend to agree with Marwan Muasher, who wrote last week in the New York Times that

The best way to deal with Islamist parties … is to include them in government and hold them accountable. …  Ennahda understands that it can’t ignore the secular part of the electorate. If the party wants to be as successful in Tunisia’s next election after a new constitution has been written, it knows it needs to present moderate views.

Over the next few years, other parties will have a chance to develop in Tunisia and Islamists are likely to get a lower percentage of the vote next time around. … While they may be part of leading coalitions in various countries, they are unlikely to gain power outright in any country.

Tunisia votes

Into the box

Tunisia held elections Sunday — the first of the Arab Spring, now turning to a chillier fall. Al-Nahda, the moderate Islamist party, appears to have won: they claim over a third of the vote as the count continues.

According to the New York Times, they

won at least 30 percent of the votes cast on Sunday, and party officials told a news conference the party had come out ahead in nearly every voting district. Ali Laredi, a top official of the party, said it expected to receive possibly more than 50 percent when the final results are tallied. Calling his party “the most modernist” Islamic political movement in the Arab world — meaning the most committed to principles of democracy and pluralism — Mr. Laredi predicted that it would now “lead the way” for others around the region.

Ettakol, a leftist party, is running at about a fifth of the vote, but is likely to join in a coalition. Khalil Zaouia, the party’s number two, told Al-Jazeera:

“Al-Nahda is certainly the majority, but there are two other democratic entities, Ettakatol and the CPR [Congress Party for the Republic, another left faction], who were weak at the start but now find themselves in the position to contribute to political life and usher a rational modernity in this Arab-Muslim country.”

The Times suggests that Al-Nahda is negotiating with the full spectrum of liberal parties for inclusion in a coaltion. But the election’s real success , surely, is that actors associated with the old regime were decisively rejected.

“Rational modernity” is a very Tunisian phrase. The nature both of national modernity — what it means for Tunisia’s state and society to be modern — and of political reason itself have been subterranean subjects of debate since the Revolution.  Secularists insistently demand: can an Islamist party really be a rational political actor in a country where authoritarian secularism has defined the national identity? Al-Nadha seems publicly unfazed by the question. It maintains it can. Nouri Gana of Jadaliyya, in an incisive if tendentious report on the election’s stakes a few days back, writes:

Perhaps the trouble with the electoral campaign in the end is that it has allowed questions of cultural identity, religion and laïcité to override other important and thorny issues that have to do with the economy, unemployment, justice and political reconciliation, etc. On the one hand, Islamists have focused very much on their past histories of struggle and have insisted on their progressive civic agenda as well as on their preference for parliamentary democracy. On the other, pseudo-secularists have been fixated on the critique of Ennahda [al-Nahda], all the while remaining reticent about or oblivious to the ideological underpinning of laïcité. By presenting their ideology as a form of critique, Tunisian pseudo-secularists have steadily, even dogmatically, constructed themselves beyond critique. A critique of Tunisian laïcité, however, is never more to be desired than at a time when its complicity with the old regime of Ben Ali and French cultural imperialism has become an everyday Tunisian reality. Tunisians who will go to the polls this Sunday cannot be expected to deliver such a critique—they will deliver their long overdue judgment.