Tunisia’s Nahda party ditches Islamist tag

Heba Saleh in Cairo
Financial Times
May 22, 2016

Tunisia’s Nahda party, a member of the governing coalition and the biggest force in parliament, has ditched its ‘Islamist’ label, saying it would end its religious activities and devote itself solely to politics.

The change, adopted in a vote by an overwhelming majority of delegates at a weekend party conference, is unprecedented in the region for an Islamist group. It also marks another milestone in the evolution of a once-repressed movement persecuted under the secular dictatorship of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali but which staged a strong come back after the 2011 revolution.

Under the leadership of its founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, Nahda has demonstrated political flexibility by striking a historic bargain with influential secular groups. This prevented the democratic transition from unraveling and helped make Tunisia the only success story among Arab countries which staged uprisings in 2011.

Addressing the Nahda conference, held in a stadium and attended by 1,300 delegates, Mr Ghannouchi said: “Nahda has evolved from defending identity to ensuring the democratic transition, and today moves on to focus on the economic transition.”

He also said that religion would be kept apart from “political struggles” and mosques should be completely neutral and play no role in politics.

A compromise constitution adopted in 2014 does not mention the implementation of Islamic law and preserves gains achieved by women in previous eras such as the banning of polygamy. Unlike other Islamist groups in the region, Nahda says its struggle is no longer motivated by the preservation of the country’s Islamic identity but by the need for good governance and economic development.

Osama Sghaier, a party spokesman, said Nahda said the issue of Tunisia’s identity was already settled by the constitution. He said the party wanted to shed the “Islamist” tag so as not to be grouped together with violent groups such as al-Qaeda.

“We are Muslim democrats,” he said.

Monica Marks, a Tunisia specialist, argued that the move represents a “rebranding” by Nahda as well as a “formalisation of a long-brewing trend within the party.”

“I see this as mainly about messaging,” she said. “They don’t want to be lumped into the same category as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. They want to be more like the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, or the AKP in its early version in Turkey.”

“All the same, religious identity will still play a role. Conservative Tunisians who believe that religion has a role in public life will gravitate to Nahda, whose internal culture will remain Islamist. For instance, the delegates to the conference are being hosted in hotels which do not serve alcohol.”

In the early years of the transition, when Nahda was the main party in government, it came under intense criticism from secular groups who accused it of being soft on extremist factions in the country.

The killing of two secular politicians by radicals in 2013 led to massive demonstrations against the party and calls for steps already taken in the transition, such as the election of a constitution-drafting assembly, to be annulled. Subsequent negotiations, mediated by civil society groups, saved the transition, but many secular Tunisians remain suspicious of Nahda.

Bochra Belhaj, an independent secular member of the Tunisian parliament, said she will be looking to see if Nahda’s announcements at the conference will be followed by concrete steps.

“This is a positive move, but we will have to see what it will mean in reality,” she said. “Specifically, I want to see if they stop supporting hardline religious associations which have praised terrorism in the past.”

Mr Sghaier said one change adopted at the conference will ban all elected cadres in the party hierarchy from involvement in civil society groups such as religious or charitable associations.

“If you want to be in politics you can, and if you want to be in civil society, that is also possible, but you can’t do both,” he said. “In the past, we struggled to be present wherever we could, but now this decision conforms to a democratic choice and to the law and the constitution.”

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