Open politics will stretch Tunisian Islamists
Rohan Jayasekera asks if the return of Tunisia's Islamists help or hinder the national democratic project Read more on Tunisia
25 Jan 11

Rohan Jayasekera Will the return of Tunisia’s Islamists help or hinder the national democratic project?  An-Nahda’s return will  test its leader’s commitment to free expression and free association. Rohan Jayasekera reports

Index on Censorship and the Tunisian Islamist an-Nahda movement never shared much more than a city, and for a while, a common foe. We both have a London base, and both of us shared the hostility of the former Ben Ali regime in Tunis.

Conversation was limited to exchanges over faked allegations quickly traced back to black propagandists in Tunisia. One, that Index was campaigning against an-Nahda over the false claim that it had issued death threats to Tunis writers; two, that an-Nadha had targeted Index on Censorship over some contribution to the Danish cartoons saga.

After both falsehoods were quickly attributed to former president Zine el-Abidene Ben Ali’s secret police, we hung up on each other. Years have passed. Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia and an-Nahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi is preparing to fly home to Tunisia after years in exile in London.

He’s planning, Ghannouchi told the Financial Times, “to be involved in contributing alongside others to the dismantling of the dictatorship and to help in the process of taking Tunisia from the dictatorial system to a democratic one”.

He’s welcome, former dissident Najib Chebbi, now development minister in Tunisia’s interim government, told the BBC. “I think, this is my personal point of view, that moderate political Islam has a place in the new Tunisia.”

The movement says it equates conventional democracy with traditional Arab systems of shura (consultation). In his FT interview Ghannouchi spoke positively about freedom of conscience and the significant rights of women enshrined by Tunisia’s progressive Personal Status Code.

They make regional parallels. Ghannouchi compared an-Nahda with Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). “Look to Morocco,” said Chebbi, “they integrated moderate political Islam and they get stability.”

The Party of Justice and Development (PJD), an Islamist group, has sat in the Moroccan parliament since 1997. An Algerian Islamist party, Ennahda, led by Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah, is also allowed to participate in political processes. And like both, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood similarly manages its relationship with the regime with care, restricting the numbers of its candidates and moderating its criticism.

To veteran French analyst Olivier Roy, author of The Failure of Political Islam, Western fear of radicalism helped Arab despots stay in power. Yet today, he writes, “everywhere in the Arab Middle East, the generation that is leading the protest against dictatorship does not have an Islamist character”.

It’s not completely without it, judging by YouTube film (here and here) of Islamist protesters in Tunisia, feeding a great deal of scepticism. One scary “exclusif” feature on the French language Maghreb Intelligence website, warned of a secret an-Nadha plot to take over.

Under this stratégie de conquête, the movement would bide its time rebuilding party networks in-country after years of appalling repression, ignore an unwinnable (for them) presidential election, and concentrate instead on the expected parliamentary and local municipal elections to follow. The shocktroops leading the surge, allege Maghreb Intelligence, will be the regenerated General Union of Tunisian Students (UGTE) in which Ghannouchi’s key leaders cut their political teeth years ago.

“I am no Khomeini,” he told the FT. “My age does not allow me to consider such aspirations. I am nearing 70 years old and there are new generations inside (an-Nadha) more able, more suited to political activism.”

Though official corruption and lack of democracy was a key motivator, the Tunisian uprising had its roots in crippling unemployment among a generally well educated youth. By 2005 a fifth of all Tunisians were aged between 15 and 24, by 2007 unemployment rates for some of them had reached 40 per cent.

Tunisian youth are a prickly bunch, with as little time for the opposition as they have for the government. Their free expression can have a hard edge, going by last December’s spat between Tunisian rapper Mohamed El Jandoubi and liberal female artists. El Jandoubi’s raps denounced Tunisian intellectuals for distancing themselves from Islamic values, including women artists like Sawssen Maalej and Olfa Youssef, both targets of conservative Islamist ire in recent years.

A number of progressive activists condemned him for fostering extremism. “I’m an artist who reflects what he sees in our society,” El Jandoubi told “I consider the art of rap to be a mirror of society, and that what I said in my song is the opinion of that society, and is not necessarily my own opinion as a person.”

The comments at the end of’s piece are illuminating, and indicate how far El Jandoubi’s supporters in Tunisian society are prepared to reinterpret his message into something else entirely. The same problem may apply to Ghannouchi.

Almost exactly six years ago (January 2005) Index on Censorship interviewed the former editor of the Movement’s banned weekly news magazine al-Fajr, Abdallah Zouari. Then exiled to the far south east of the country, separated from his family and placed under house arrest and constant surveillance, he spoke fluently about the importance of both media and internet in keeping the movement alive.

Banned in Tunisia, in the years that followed the movement cultivated good relations with the Islamist-sympathetic London based Tunisian satellite channel al-Hiwar and Zouari and others did much as they could with the internet.

Even the recreation of the weekly al-Fajr, banned in 1991, or its rumoured recreation as a daily paper in Tunis will leave the movement with a long way to catch up in the world of “new post-Islamist politics in the Middle East”.

An extraordinary flowering of independent media, print, online and broadcast is coming to Tunisia. It will quickly dissect the motives of an-Nahda’s October 18 alliance of political parties and civil society groups — including Chebbi’s Progressive Democratic Party and the Tunisian Communist Workers Party — and plumb the depths of the movement’s Islamist convictions.

Zouari’s website is currently hacked by a group claiming to be pro-opposition, and a hoped-for relaxation of controls on imams, allowing them to preach the movement line in mosques, will not fill the communication gap.

Ghannouchi says the alliance was founded two simple demands: to call for freedom of expression and association for everyone and to recognise the rights of all parties. How his followers defend that freedom for all will be its lasting test.

Rohan Jayasekera is Associate Editor at Index on Censorship, which currently chairs the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring group of free expression advocacy organisations.

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.