Tunisia’s Nahda Movement

Tunisia’s Nahda Movement

The Islamist Nahda movement in Tunisia has recently celebrated 26 years since its inception amid a difficult atmosphere related to its inability to transcend the restrictive corner it found itself in since the beginning of the nineties. By Salah ad-Din al-Jourchi

Restrictive factors for the Nahda movement include a leadership that resides overseas and is dispersed across several European capitals in addition to the dossier of its prisoners – a legacy that has just entered its seventeenth year with no clear end in sight.

Structurally, the organization within Tunisia remains paralyzed due to the tight security cordon placed on its members. Its political future awaits a general amnesty despite the many declarations issued by the movement expressing a readiness to abandon its past actions which constitutes some of the worst moments throughout its trajectory.

Conflict with the regime

The current Tunisian government has succeeded in eliminating a political rival the moment the organization expressed its desire to become involved in the political arena as a participating party. In this way the movement handed over to the authorities the golden opportunity to get rid of it or at least to lessen its threatening impact to political stability.

The escalation, or the decision to increase its involvement in the political process was one taken by the general command of al-Nahda immediately following its incidental participation in the first organized elections held during the presidency of Ben Ali in April 1989.

Its participation created fears both internally and overseas which resulted in a general consensus that sought to limit the power of this emerging group in a country that could not afford such inadvertent adventures totally unsupported by local or international powers in the Maghreb region.

Al-Ghannushi – the iconic symbol of the movement

If the political regime succeeded in great measure in limiting the movement and paralyzing its operations internally, it still failed to put an end to it largely due to the existence of its members outside Tunis and their congregation around its leader Sheikh Rashid al-Ghannushi, the iconic symbol of the movement, who continued to exercise an impressive draw.

The crucial element that prevented its dissolution in the annals of history is that al-Nahda did not get entangled in the violence thus avoiding a similar fate to that of the FLN in Algeria after its clashes with government.

The movement”s non-violent agenda, its relinquishing any attempt to infiltrate the military and security camps was extremely effective in forcing the European governments to take a stand and refuse to acquiesce to the requests of the Tunisian authorities for the extradition of its members as terrorists thus granting them political refugee status. Such a situation has allowed them to continue their activities where they could continue to rebuild their organization overseas.

Reconnecting with the opposition

The authorities also failed in isolating the movement politically. After a brief discord with other opposing political groups and the authorities during the first phase of out-rooting the Islamists, the organization succeeded in reconnecting with these parties.

These building confidence measures were noticeable after the release of some of its prominent leaders from prison and their persistence in exercising their constitutional rights to engage in politics. This established the Oct. 18th movement that today forms the basis of political alliance with various opposition movements.

Despite its success in resistance, in breaking its isolation and establishing connections with various political families, the Nahda movement emerged from its struggle with the authorities a weaker entity.

Its losses cannot be compared to its successes; there are members, for example, who chose to withdraw quietly citing personal reasons while others moved away for more professional reasons; members found themselves belonging to a movement that lacked a strategic or futuristic plan depending instead on individual initiative.

One can also note the rebellion – in this case against the movement”s moral and symbolic authorities with pieces posted on the internet criticising the organization.

Its founder, as a historical and iconic symbol, was also subjected to lacerating critiques from former members. Many ceased to see al-Ghannoushi as the capable political leader who at this stage can get the movement out of its current predicament and transform it into a new and active political party.

Al-Ghannoushi received around 60% of the votes in the last conference for al-Nahda which is strong evidence of an end to consensus and the search for an alternative.

Fearful of engaging in intellectual revisionism

When the leadership of the movement endorsed the general request for reconciliation on the 18th of October in celebration of the International Woman”s Day, a strong debate erupted in the movement among its members and their leaders outside Tunis. The debate revealed the vast chasm that separated many of the members.

A movement that began as an attempt to unify many members into a party with a political program and a vision for society, as these debates revealed, descended into discussions as to whether the current civil codes oppose Islam with those who regard the abolition of multiple wives as contradicting an important Islamic cornerstone.

The movement was and remains fearful of engaging in intellectual and religious revisionism which other movements like the Muslim Brotherhood had initially started. Al-Nahda sacrificed this intellectual trajectory in favour of political activism which still remains a priority.

Ambivalence remains a constant factor on many of the principle issues; and there is clearly a tendency to a conservative renewal along the same lines of the salafi (traditionalist) movements and this is clearly mirrored on the structure of the organization. There are no clear guidelines that separate between a religious organization as such and the criteria of a political party.

Experiences of other Islamist parties

These problematics which the Muslim Turks seem to have overcome in their political experience with the Party of Justice and Development; the same can be said of the maturity of the Egyptian centrist party. Moreover, some of the Moroccan Islamists are also grappling with the situation which the Nahda movement so far has not managed to seriously deal with and clarify.

This explains the crisis in methodology and the ambivalence of its political program. Its slogans, for example, are identical with those of the Tunisian democratic movement but the devil resides in the details, as the saying goes, and during turbulent times the fissures, or fault lines, that reveal the glaring absence of alternative plans becomes too clear in both structure and content of the organization.

The fear, of course, lies in the continuation of such an unnatural situation due to the strength of the conservative line within the movement on the one hand supported by the increase in salafi tide which Tunisia has been undergoing in the last few years. This constitutes pressure as well as an obstacle to any deep intellectual development on local Islamic arena.

Every objective researcher cannot speak of the political or cultural future of Tunisia without taking into consideration the Nahda movement. Despite the weakness that it has been experiencing of late it still cannot be overlooked as a player.

As long as the organization does not seriously evaluate its situation and experiences in addition to taking the issue of its renewal beyond party interests and these short term debates, it will be doomed to repeat its errors with ever more losses.

More importantly – or seriously one may add – it would find itself used by one group or another for interests that would clash with those of Tunisia and its people.