In his seminal book, „The Many Faces of Islam“, Mohammed Ayoob defines political Islam as “a form of instrumentalization of Islam by individuals, groups, and organizations that pursue political objectives.” Accordingly, political Islamists capitalize on the sentiment that the reason for weakness and backwardness of today’s Muslim countries is because they are distancing themselves from the Islamic principles. They fashion their speech and act in a way which openly asserts or hints that first of all they are “good Muslims” and second that the political solutions to the challenges they offer rest upon Islamic tradition. As Amer al- Sabailah says, the main source of legitimacy in Muslim countries is Islam itself. So, those in rule behave as guardians of Islam although on many occasions the reality is exactly the opposite.
Needless to say, political Islam and its representation differ from country to country based on the social, legal and historical context. The exact context that lent conditions to the rise of AKP or the Justice and Development Party in Türkiye are not totally same as those leading to Annahda’s ascendance in Tunisia. Regardless of those differences, there is one communality between, namely in nearly all countries that political Islam gained prominence, best contrast can be seen in Tunisia and Türkiye, political Islamists terribly failed. The project of real or feigned- Islamisation of the societies from above for societal development did actually antagonized populations let alone succeeding in producing results.
Political Islam in Tunisia – An-Nahda:
Originally formed in 1981 as the Movement of Islamic Tendency (MTI) and having experienced state repression resulted in the jailing of many of its members and their flight to exile, Annahda made its comeback right after the Jasmine Revolution as the dominant political force in Tunisia. In the elections of 2011, An-Nahda secured 1,498,905 million votes, translating into 89 seats in the 217-seat parliament. Its nearest competitor, Congress for the Republic (CPR) led by Moncef Marzouki won 352.825 votes and 29 seats. Yet An-Nahda‘s popularity alongside its votes declined gradually. The party got 947.034 votes and 69 seats in 2014 elections, and finally mere 561.132 votes and 53 seats in 2019 elections.
At the roots of this steady decline lies a number of factors. The first and foremost is the incompetence in generating benefits of transition to democracy for the public. To illustrate this, an array of statistics will be listed hereafter.
According to World Bank data, Tunisia’s GDP was USD 48,12 bn in 2011. If we discount 48,18 in 2013 and 50,27 in 2014, the GDP never reached the level attained in 2011 until today. Gross public debt which refers to financial liabilities of the government sector reached the level of 81,8 % in 2021. According to IMF data, this was 47% in 2011. Other financial indicators also proof this trend. Swallowing a bitter pill extended by IMF in exchange for a USD 2,9 bn loan in June 2016, the reforms that foresaw devaluation of Tunisian dinar, wage freezes, subsidy cuts and increase of interest rates did more harm then helping the Tunisian economy. The austerity measures eroded the middle class in the country. On top of all that,
the security problems in Libya that reduced the amount of remittances previously sent by Tunisian workers in the country, and the restrictions due to COVID further degraded the economy. The Tunisians did not feel the economic benefits of the revolution.
Tunisians perceive the management of the economy and unemployment as the two greatest problems of the country. In terms of unemployment, the ruling government over the last years, of which An-Nahda has been a part of, cannot be said to have found sustainable solutions. The IMF data shows, especially after 2019, there has been consequential rise in unemployment. An-Nahda is widely criticized for its inaction.
The second root of the decline in the popularity of An-Nahda which further pushed the country down was the incompetence in governance. Although this is not An-Nahda‘s unique responsibility, it has been seen so since the party was a major element of each coalition and a kingmaker since the revolution. Especially the baggage carried by An-Nahda coming from its past and ideology which clashed with the established secular statecraft pushed it to moderation and obsession to rule in consensus. Before the elections in 2019, the governing coalition between An-Nahda and Nidaa Tounes was ailed with constant disputes and tensions between coalition partners, while favoritism, social divisions, and corruption joined poor economic conditions to increase distaste towards the governing political class. The Afrobarometer poll conducted in Tunisia in 2018 showed 79 percent of the respondents said the country was going in the wrong direction. 56 percent described the present conditions in the country as “very bad” while another 17 percent said “fairly bad”. Finally, 81 percent of the respondents said they did not feel close to any party. The coalition with Nidaa Tounes did not deliver much to the country. The progress in a way stopped. The most striking example, which had been abused by President Saeid, was the non-assignment of the 12 constitutional court judges till the 21 July coup although the court was created in 2015.
The unfolding of events after 2019 elections, including poor decisions on forming the government, and inability to address public distaste about the political games ignoring the voters will further accelerate the estrangement both within the party and between the latter and the public. An-Nahda was not able to read the election of a constitutional law with no political career background to presidency with 72,21 percent public support while candidate Nabil Karaoui only got 27,29 of the votes in 2019.
Presidential Coup in 2021 and An-Nahda’s Role
On July 25, 2021, the President Kais Saied grabbed power, dissolving the parliament, sacking prime minister, and lifting the immunity of all parliamentarians. On September 29, the President named a new prime minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane, subordinating her powers to his. He gradually assumed more power. He attacked judiciary, dismissing judges, or replaced the electoral commission. Then on July 25, 2022, Saied put a new constitution to a referendum, establishing a presidential system in Tunisia. Among calls by An-Nahda and other political groups for boycotting the voting, the Tunisians voted for the new constitution with a sweeping majority of 94%. The turnout was strikingly low 30 %.
There are several insights that can be drawn from these results. First of all, the low turnout rate indicates, the three quarters of the Tunisians did not buy into Saed’s campaign slogan: “Say yes to save the State from collapse and achieve the goals of the Revolution. There will be no misery, no terrorism, no famine, no injustice, no suffering.” But, about a quarter of the population could be said to become his power base.
Second, the political parties, and at their head stood An-Nahda, could not mobilize the population to boycott the referendum. With an extremely low turnout rate, meaning below 10 percent, the President would probably not be able to continue further power grabs. The parties could not move in harmony, and even if they did so, their credit in the eyes of the public was so low that the result would be questionable.
Third, despite in face of an open power grab by the President on made-up reasons, evoking emergency rule under article 80 of the constitution, An-Nahda could not mobilize masses and its leaders could not confront the President. The party’s leader Rached Al-Ghannouchi was too fearful that the party would not survive the President’s anger and its leaders would be put in prison. This mildness caused the exodus of 113 members.
No good can be attained by ill means. In the early period after the President’s power grab, the Tunisians were left in ambivalence on whether to cry for a pricy democracy that was run by untrustworthy politicians delivering no additional benefits or to bet on a popular President, who reverted to authoritarian methods, promising the good to come. Since, the power grab or the Presidential coup as many describe, the trend in all indicators from economy to personal freedoms have deteriorated to open eyes for the Tunisian populations and political elites.
The result is a 8,8% turnover rate on the parliamentarian election on 18 December 2022, testifying for the need of President Saied to leave his post immediately.
As for An-Nahda, although itself and its leaders have not been able to deliver what they promised and their popularity has degraded on constant basis, this does not mean they will be swept from the Tunisian political landscape. Yet, it is unlikely that the party will create another success story as it did in 2011 elections.
If An-Nahda could well govern, energize the Tunisian political elites and show leadership in creating the change, delivering reforms, and strengthening institutions, the President would not be able to capitalize on failures and summon up public support. An-Nahda terribly failed and the party‘s failure has opened up a space to be abused.
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