Tunisia’s Islamists: Ennahda and the Salafis

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Roberta Lusardi

M.A. student at SAIS (Johns Hopkins)

In November 2011, less than one year after the ouster of President Ben Ali, the College of Arts and Letters at the Manouba University near Tunis was taken hostage by long-bearded men and veiled women carrying signs reading “My niqab [face veil] is my freedom.” A group of around 50 young salafi (radical Islamist) men proceeded to occupy the university until the end of January, in support of two female students kicked out of the classroom for refusing to take off their face veils. Since then, skirmishes that set secularists and liberals against the salafis have multiplied.

Many Tunisians have been seriously concerned about the salafis’ rising influence and what they perceive as timid reactions from the Islamist party in government, Ennahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi. The events at the Manouba last November especially alarmed secularists, liberals and women, who accuse Ennahda of turning a blind eye to growing radicalism. However, the party rejects this accusation, explaining that Ennahda’s refusal to enshrine sharia (Islamic Law) in Article One of the new Constitution is the ultimate proof of the party’s rejection of extremism. The article, which states that Islam is the religion of the state without mentioning sharia as the key source of law, will, in fact, be kept intact. With this decision, Ennahda’s leaders underscored their political distance from the salafis and positioned their party as the guarantor of the country’s stability. Does this choice really signal a divorce?

Besides the events at the Manouba, there is other evidence of a deep cleavage within Tunisian society. The trial of the owner of Nassma TV, Nabil Karoui, “accused of violating sacred values” because of his decision to air the French-Iranian movie Persepolis, also pitted secularists against the salafis. The movie, considered to be anti-Islam because of its depiction of God by one of the characters, aroused harsh criticism among the most conservative Tunisian Muslims. During the trial against Karoui (recently found guilty by the Court of First Instance in Tunis), a group of salafis attacked students and journalists who wanted to express their solidarity with Karoui before the court. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda’s secretary general, denounced these attacks, but no concrete actions were taken to punish the radicals.

The desecration of the Tunisian flag, when a salafi militant replaced the national banner with the green flag of Islam at the entrance of the Manouba also upset the staunch defenders of secularism. However, the most offensive image for many Tunisians was that of a group of salafis on top of the clock tower on March 25, in the middle of a huge salafi demonstration to defend sharia, waving black flags. In all these instances, many Tunisians have criticized Ennahda’s failure to clamp down on the salafis.

Does the decision about Article One make clear Ennahda’s relationship with the salafis? It is probably too early to tell, even if secularists and liberals sighed with relief when they received the news. But who are these Tunisian salafis everyone is talking about? The answer is not simple. The salafis apply a strict interpretation of the sources of Islamic theology; the Quran and the Sunna. During Ben Ali’s regime, according to Samir Amghar, a sociologist at the Center for European Policy Studies, young Tunisian graduates of Saudi Arabian Islamic universities returned to their country and started to spread a more conservative interpretation of Islam. Today, the number of salafis in the country has increased, thanks to salafi satellite channels that bring their messages directly into Tunisian homes. They are not organized into political parties yet, but in religious or charity associations. They also control a certain number of mosques.

In his book Le Salafisme Aujourd’hui, Amghar divides the salafis into three main groups: the quietists (those who refrain from politics), the activists (those who engage in politics) and the jihadists (those who resort to violence to attain their aims). However, it is difficult to draw rigid lines between these groups. In fact, after Egyptian salafis’ electoral success, the quietists, whose most prominent figure is Bechir Belhassen, lost ground to the politicized faction. As for the jihadists, many claim that they have positions close to al-Qaeda’s, but one of their leaders, Sheikh Abou Yiadh, recently stated in an interview in Le Figaro, “Tunisia is not the land of jihad but of religious preaching.”  To further complicate this scenario, some commentators consider another important Tunisian movement, Hizb-Ettahrir, part of the Salafi trend. Its spokesperson, Ridha Belhaj, rejects this connection, however, and asserts that his movement’s goal is only to establish the Islamic caliphate (Tunisia Live).

Certainly, Ennahda’s refusal to enshrine shariain Article One clarifies the party’s ideological distance from jihadist salafis’ positions. In an interview published in Le Monde, Ali Larayedh, member of Ennahda and current minister of interior, defined the jihadist salafis as the greatest danger in today’s Tunisia and a group that his government will need to fight. In reaction, one of the jihadist salafists’ most prominent figures, Abou Yiadh, predicted in Le Temps, “The new government is heading for a new form of dictatorship, because Tunisians are Muslims and Ennahda is Islam’s enemy.” These declarations mark a widening gap between Ghannouchi’s party and the radicals to his right. His strategy of isolating the extremists allows Ennahda to gain further legitimacy with the international community, as the guarantor of stability and the enemy of radicalization.

While sidelining the jihadists, Ennahda leaves the door open for the quietists to be integrated into the political arena. For a long time, Ghannouchi has encouraged quietist salafis to pursue their agenda through legal means, whether associations or parties. While in Washington, two members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, Sahbi Atig and Osama Al-Saghir, reasserted that Ennahda is trying to keep the dialogue open with the “moderate” salafis, to persuade them to create a party and run in the next elections. They also claimed that Ghannouchi’s party pursues a strategy of inclusiveness rather than adopting Ben Ali’s techniques and wants to engage all the social actors in dialogue. Last February, President Moncef  Marzouki invited some salafi sheikhs, among them the quietist Belhassen, to the presidential palace and had a “reasonable dialogue” with them, as Tunisia Live reported. The relationship between this salafi fringe and Ennahda seems solid, considering Belhassen’s statements in Le Temps. He asserted that he was saddened by Ennahda’s decision about Article One, but he justified Ghannouchi’s stance: “It is too early to apply sharia, and Tunisians still suffer from a religious illiteracy.”

However, despite the apparent divorce between Ennahda and the salafis’ most radical fringe, some scholars advise caution. Samir Amghar does not consider Ennahda and the quietist salafis as rivals, merely two faces of the same coin. As he reported to Kapitalis, there would be an implicit division of labor between the two of them, since the salafis take positions that Ennahda could not embrace openly, especially under the gaze of Western chancelleries. From this perspective, an attempt to engage salafis in a dialogue with Ghannouchi’s party would be nothing but an effort to control them.  The Tunisian sociologist Alaya Allani shares a similar point of view. By not reacting decisively to salafis’ aggressiveness, Ennahda would be de facto supporting a conservative drift in Tunisian society.

The decision about Article One marks a turning point in the relationship between salafis and Ennahda. This choice was also motivated by the triumph of realpolitik over ideology. Ennahda is well aware that its fate in the next elections (to be held before June 2013) will be determined by its ability to deliver in terms of job creation, development of the interior of the country and economic growth. These areas are inextricably linked to the coalition government’s unity and the willingness of foreigners to invest in Tunisia. Ettakatol (left) and CPR (center-left), the two parties that, with Ennahda, make up the government, have drawn some red lines when it comes to Islamic modifications of the Constitution. A decision to insert sharia into Article One would have seriously compromised the coalition government’s survival. 

As far as development is concerned, foreign investment is crucial to getting the Tunisian economy back on its feet. Political stability and clear opposition to salafi trouble makers are crucial to reassuring investors. The refusal to enshrine sharia in the new constitution and a tougher stance against the jihadist salafis sent positive signals to companies ready to spend money in the country. Furthermore, Tunisia is in the process of discussing “advanced status” with the EU and the establishment of a free-trade area, two measures that will enhance trade relations with the European Union. The decision to resume the talks on advanced status was motivated by EU commissioners in light of Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali political reforms. With these negotiations under way, mentioning sharia in the new constitution would have jeopardized progress. These same considerations hold with respect to U.S. support. Hillary Clinton has recently announced that Washington will provide $100 million to the Tunisian government for short-term fiscal relief. This fund will be an additional resource to a  sovereign-loan-guarantee agreement ($30 million).  

It is too early to tell which direction Ennahda will take and what its relations with the salafis will be. The writing of the constitution is ongoing and full of challenges. In the meantime, secularists, liberals and women have not let down their guard. Much is still at stake: the fate of Article Five (the guarantee of universal human rights, based on the principles of rule of law and pluralism) and Article Eight (freedom of opinion, expression, press, publication, assembly and association) is a major source of concern for those who fear that Ennahda wants to pursue a hidden conservative agenda. Timid management of a salafi hard line will therefore receive harsh criticism.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top