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En-Nahdha / Ennahdha (Renaissance)

En-Nahdha means renaissance in Arabic. Since Tunisias revolution in 2011, the moderate Islamist party has been on a roller-coaster ride, soaring from pre-revolutionary lows as political pariah to, at least briefly, the pinnacle of power. By 2016 Ennahda started a new chapter in its history, as it moved to separate its political and religious activities. Overwhelmingly endorsed at a party conference in May 2016, party members described the split as a pragmatic response to the political and economic challenges facing Tunisia. Some observers greeted the change cautiously, waiting to see how it will pan out in practical terms. Sharper critics dismissed it as mere rhetoric, while Ennahda hardliners considered it a betrayal of the partys religious identity.

By January 2011 Tunisia was undergoing a rebirth of sorts as it shook off its autocratic past. Islamist leader Rachid Ghanouchi has been in Tunisia's spotlight in early 2011 since returning to the North African country after more than two decades in exile. Ghanouchi is quick to stress his brand of religious politics is open, moderate and tolerant. Ghanouchi says his party, Ennahda, wants a democratic republic and does not search to install an Islamic republic. He said that the ideology of Ennadha has matured since the 1980s and Islam and democracy go toghether.

In the past, Tunisian authorities have cracked down hard on political Islam. Many are wondering what role it will play as Tunisia tries to build a multiparty democracy. During a brief window of openness after former Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took power in the late 1980s, Ennadha was Tunisia's most powerful opposition party. It captured 17 percent of the vote in 1989 legislative elections. Then Mr. Ben Ali cracked down, sending many Islamists to prison. Others, like Ennahdha's Ghanouchi, went into exile.

The old government did not permit the establishment of political parties based on religion, and it banned the Islamist movement En-Nahdha. The old government asserted that religious parties could be vehicles for extremism and that by preventing political parties from becoming channels for intolerance, hatred, and terrorism, it promoted societal tolerance. The government maintained tight surveillance over Islamists and did not issue passports to some alleged Islamists. It maintained that only the courts possessed the power to revoke passports; however, reports indicated that the government rarely observed this separation of powers in politically sensitive cases and independently revoked and denied renewal of passports.

The history of the Tunisian Islamist movement is centered on the history of the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI- Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique), which was founded in 1981. The MTI calls for the application of Islamic principles to all forms of political, economic, and social life. It rejects the "cultural colonization" of the Islamic world by Western influence. It believes that the Islamic code of conduct as expressed in sharia should be the law of the land. Bourguiba's economic policies have been criticized as overly dependent on tourism from the West and on employment of Tunisian workers abroad. The MTI demands greater self-sufficiency for Tunisia by modernizing and raising the productivity of agriculture and by turning industry to the production of goods for domestic needs.

Government officials blamed the MTI for violent incidents on university campuses and inflammatory sermons by dissident imams (see Glossary). About 70 of those arrested received prison sentences of one to 11 years. Beginning in 1984, the government shifted to less suppressive tactics in dealing with the MTI. In August all 17 MTI leaders still in jail were pardoned, including the movement's president, Rachid Ghanouchi, and its secretary general, Abdelfattah Mourou. The group was still refused registration as a legal party, and its journals, Al Maarfa and Al Mujtamaa, continued to be banned. Permission to hold public meetings was not granted, and MTI activists - many of them civil servants or government-employed teachers - remained under surveillance.

In 1988 MTI became known as Hizb al Nahda (Renaissance Party, can also be transliterated into English as Ennahda), in order to attempt to meet Ben Ali's requirement that political parties be separated from religious influences. To a large extent both MTI and al Nahda are identified by the changing ideologies of Rachid Ghannouchi, who has been the nominal President of MTI/Nahda for most of this time period, and has been living in London since 1992. Some analysts consider Rashid Ghannouchi, An Nahdah's leader in exile, to be a moderate seeking toaccommodate Islam with democracy. The government harshly suppressed En-Nahdah after unearthing an alleged conspiracy in 1991. An Nahdah denied the accusation, but, in 1992, Tunisian military courts convicted 265 An Nahdah members on charges of plotting a coup.

President Ben Ali failed to extend official recognition to the presumably largest opposition movement, the Islamic movement al Nahda, and to several smaller opposition groups. The strongest political group, al Nahda, though not legalized, participated in the 1989 elections by supporting independent slates and by running its own candidates. It is estimated that al Nahda received about 17 percent of the vote, yet none of its candidates received a majority in their respective constituency.

In November 2008 the government conditionally released the An-Nahdha leaders remaining in prison; however, in December 2008 the government rearrested former An-Nahda president Sadok Chorou shortly after he gave an interview to the London-based satellite television station Al-Hiwar, and sentenced him to one year in prison for membership in an unauthorized organization.

The true source of resistance to al Hahda, however, lay in the old regime's character. Essentially, its elite was a continuation of the secular and Western oriented Bourguiba regime. The exclusion of al-Nahda from the political process exposes the unwillingness of the new regime to liberalize politically.

Finding upward channels blocked and their hopes of joining the middle class and the elite thwarted, many young Tunisians had become disillusioned, cynical, alienated from their parents and elders, and contemptuous of the Westernized middle class they formerly had envied. Rejecting middle-class values and ostentatious display of wealth and seeking alternatives to consumerism and the "get rich quick" ethic of the 1970s, a sizable portion of the younger generation had withdrawn from participation in state functions and political organizations. Instead they had turned to the religious sphere for inspiration, guidance, and self-fulfillment. This movement was especially pronounced among secondary-school and university students who came from the poorer strata of society and who were without real hope of upward social or economic mobility.

Significant numbers of the young were joining the Islamic Tendency Movement (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique-MTI), which condemned contemporary society as morally depraved and sought to replace it with an Islamic-based society and a strict code of behavior. The MTI drew most of its support from coastal regions, including Tunis, the same locales where the ruling PSD party and the middle classes were concentrated. This regional congruence of two fundamentally opposed sets of values accentuated in yet another way the divergence between the older and younger generations that contained the potential for further protests in the future.

The practice of Islam had always been less rigorous in Tunisia than elsewhere in the region and that the bourgeois values of an important element in Tunisian society had never satisfactorily accommodated those of traditional Islam. Superficially at least, the intermingling of French with Arab culture had worked its way relatively far down the socioeconomic scale in the cities, where it was reflected in language and dress.

By the early 1970s it was evident that an Islamic renewal was underway in reaction to official secularism and that it was gaining considerable support, particularly among the educated youth of the country. The Islamist movement sought to reassert religious influence in areas from which the regime had attempted to exclude it, including the political process. Islamists, popularly referred to by Western sources as fundamentalists, decried the identification of modernization, which they did not generally oppose, with Westernization, which they blamed for the alleged decline of moral values in Tunisian society.

The earliest form of popular protest to what Islamists regarded as the regime's trifling with religious practices came from groups organized by the devout to determine the beginning of Ramadan by traditional methods. The impetus for a more intellectually oriented Islamic renewal came from the activities of the Society for the Preservation of the Quran. Branches of the society had existed in most cities for many years, but after 1970 its membership grew impressively, attracting young people who felt that their secular education had neglected their spiritual heritage as Muslims. Among those who joined the Society was Rachid Ghanouchi, later to be regarded as the ideological leader of the Islamist movement and its principal spokesperson.

The Tunisian Islamists took inspiration from the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 because it demonstrated the power latent in Islam to mobilize a population but accepted neither its methods nor its aims. The two countries, they noted, had different spiritual traditions and historical experiences, and they were careful to draw a distinction between their movement and that of the Iranian leaders.

As an expression of their sympathy for the Islamist movement, in the 1970s many male students began to go unshaven, and many university women took to wearing the hijab, a traditional headdress that Bourguiba had barred from the schools many years before. It was understood, however, that many of the women who identified with the movement also acknowledged that they did not wish to see rescinded the laws that had allowed their legal emancipation. Nor did they feel that wearing the hijab was necessary for a woman to be a good Muslim. It was an option that was as much a sign of protest against the government and solidarity with other students as it was an expression of piety. Islam was seen as providing a way out of the political, economic, and social malaise that they perceived. Many students reported that the price of receiving a modern education and being accepted in a secular environment had been the repudiation of their own origins and heritage. Ghanouchi, for example, said that he had been made to feel like a stranger in his own country and yearned for an identity that he could find only in Islam.

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Page last modified: 05-06-2016 20:55:47 ZULU