Profile: Tunisia's Ennahda Party

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Ennahda closing campaign rally in Tunis, 21 October, 2011.
Image caption,
Ennahda quickly emerged as the front-runner in the Tunisian elections

The Islamist party of Ennahda has claimed victory in Tunisia's elections, the first to follow the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.

The strength of Ennahda has divided Tunisians ever since the fall of former leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

To its supporters it is an example of how a balance can be struck between modernity and Islam, to its critics a sign that resurgent religious politics could put Tunisia's secular tradition at risk.

Over the last few months Ennahda politicians have made every effort to reassure Tunisian liberals and Western observers that they will protect civil rights and support democracy.

Party officials now refer to Ennahda as Islamic rather than Islamist - on the basis that such a label carries negative connotations.

And Souad Abdelrahim, a candidate who does not wear the veil, has been offered as a symbol of their tolerance.

But some supporters and members still call themselves Islamist, and describe Ennahda as "God's party".

Originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda advocates a more overtly Islamic identity and society for the country.

Rumours that it was receiving campaign funds from the Gulf - denied by the party - fuelled anxiety among some largely urban, secularist Tunisians.

They fear the party could be vulnerable to the influence of more conservative currents or change its tune once in power.


Ennahda's figurehead is Rachid Ghannouchi, one of a group of intellectuals who founded the party in 1981.

Eight years later Ennahda came second to the ruling party in elections, officially winning about 17% of the ballot.

However, allegations of fraud marred the vote and according to some estimates Ennahda's tally was as much as double the official figure.

The party then suffered a long period of repression under Mr Ben Ali, with Mr Ghannouchi spending the time in exile in London.

Now back in Tunisia, he is now widely viewed as a moderate, reform-minded Islamist.

"We believe that all Tunisian people can survive peacefully within a moderate vision of Islam which can be compatible with democracy," he told the BBC in earlier this year.

"Our vision of Islam is a moderate one and since 1981... we have declared that we accept democracy without any restrictions and we accept the decision of the people whether they come with us or against us.

"We accept the notion of citizenship as the basis of rights, so all citizens are equal whether they are Islamist or not Islamist."

He also stressed that Ennahda accepts gender equality, enshrined in Tunisia's Personal Status Code under Mr Ben Ali, as "an acceptable interpretation within Islam".

Turkish model

The party has evolved over time.

Aligned with more extreme Islamist movements elsewhere in the Arab world in the 1980s, Mr Ghannouchi and other Ennahda leaders now like to compare Ennahda to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey.

Image caption,
Souad Abdelrahim (centre) ran as a candidate on the Ennahda list

"In Turkey and Tunisia there was the same movement of reconciliation between Islam and modernity and we are the descendants of this movement," Mr Gahnnouchi said.

Ennahda is now expected to enter a coalition that will serve as an interim government and draw up a constitution within a year.

Spokesmen for the party have said it is willing to hold coalition talks with any other party, including secular or left-leaning ones.

They say Ennahda will concentrate on the economy and ensuring internal security.

"We would like to reassure our trade and economic partners, and all actors and investors, we hope very soon to have stability and the right conditions for investment in Tunisia," Abdelhamid Jlassi, a member of Ennahda's executive, told reporters in Tunis.

Though the party has said little about specific policies, this suggests it will try not to become distracted by issues such as alcohol consumption or blasphemy that some pious Muslims and extremists have been trying to push into the political sphere.

Religious tension has however erupted several times since January, notably in protests over the screening of films seen by some as blasphemous.

Ennahda has distanced itself from the protests and the Salafist extremists it says are behind them.

Still, some secularists see the tensions as a warning sign, just as they justify past repression of Islamists by pointing to acid attacks against female students accused of dressing "indecently" in the 1980s.

Secularists have held regular demonstrations to voice fears about losing the status they achieved under former President Habib Bourguiba - who criticised the wearing of the Islamic headscarf and once appeared on television during the Ramadan drinking orange juice.

Thanks to the French-inspired secular tradition that he promoted and Mr Ben Ali continued, Tunisians as well as tourists have generally been able to drink alcohol openly, and women at beaches and swimming pools commonly wear bikinis.

While this might provoke some, the importance of mass tourism to Tunisia's economy, the determination of a vocal group of liberals, and the commitments from Ennahda will all make it harder to change.

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