As soon as the Tunisian elections results were announced with Nidaa Tounes overtaking Ennahdha party, celebrations of the “Islamists'” defeat at the hands of the “secularists” got underway across the media in France and many other western capitals. The historical context of a country in the aftermath of a revolution, its socio-political circumstances and complex regional conditions was banished from the narrative. Between cliches of bad “Islamists” “defeated” by good “secularists” and jubilant resurrections of old prophesies of the “failure of political Islam,” the contest was portrayed as a battle of ideologies and world views.
Such faulty conclusions derive from false premises: from the tendency to view political parties and movements with an Islamic reference frame as metaphysical ahistorical entities outside the laws of socio-politics. Their decisions and conduct are only explainable by reference to theology and ideology. Their religious references are seen as the key to their successes in societies viewed through the prism of culture mostly, while their religious discourse is thought to grant them immunity from defeat and diminution. Islamist parties’ electoral setbacks thus stand little chance of being objectively discussed, as one would expect of those of the Democrats in the U.S. or Labour in the UK.
The truth, however, is that Islamists are political actors no different from other parties and political organizations, prone to ascent and descent, success and failure, and subject to the influences of the national political climates where they operate. Those working in open democratic environments differ from those moving within climates of oppression and despotism. The nature of the wider social milieu shapes these actors and defines their political and intellectual outlooks.
Yemen’s Islamists, who function in a tribal framework, or those in Lebanon and Iraq operating in a sectarian context significantly differ from those working in the more culturally and politically open societies of Tunisia or Morocco. In fact, the conditions of the same political actor may vary significantly with changes to its political sphere, which has been the case with Ennahdha party, for instance, which was transformed from a politically radical opposition party under the Ben Ali regime into a ruling party as a result of the rapid developments ushered in by the Tunisian revolution.
The terminological baggage used to refer to such parties and movements is, it must be said, part of the problem. It is overly broad, ambiguous and loaded with negative connotations. It designates actors at opposite ends of the Islamic spectrum with visions of Islam and politics that are at loggerheads, from the violent anarchists of Isis and al-Qaeda and the quietist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who subscribe to a puritanical reading of Islam and firmly reject democracy and its procedures as non-Islamic, to those like Ennahdha and Justice and Development party, who seek to legitimize it within an Islamic reference frame, adopting it as their political methodology, and seeing no contradiction between their faith and human rights, public liberties or individual freedoms. When referring such political parties, it may be more accurate to speak of “democratic political Islam.”
Islamic political movements are byproducts of two interconnected projects. The first, is modernization in the region, with all its tensions, successes, failures and consequences, foremost among which urbanization and mass education. They are both a result of and a response to the modernization process. Contrary to common wisdom, Islamist parties tend to do better in modernized societies, such as those of Turkey and Tunisia, than they fare in more traditional ones like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
The second is the nation state. Islamic political parties are crucially influenced by their local environments and shaped by them. Their concerns and priorities remain largely national even if they speak of the notion of the “ummah,” which is in reality a matter of moral and emotional solidarity, nothing more.
We must strip the phenomena of “political Islam” of the mystical aura shrouding them, which results from a tendency to equate them with “fundamentalism”: a mass of angry irrational impulses wholly motivated by religious aspirations and incentives, and instead situate them within the conditions of their time and space. Only through historical socio political context can we hope to cure researchers, journalists and observers of the malady of oversimplification, generalization and reductionism that currently deforms the bulk of analyses of the subject.
Ennahdha party’s electoral successes and failures — past, present, or future — must be stripped of religious and moral considerations and viewed as perfectly normal phenomena in a democratic system where political forces naturally oscillate between ascent and descent. And though the claim that the ‘religious’ have been vanquished by the ‘secularists’ may strongly appeal to many, I fear it does not stand up to accurate objective scrutiny.
What happened in Tunisia has in reality nothing to do with ideology, religion, or secularism and everything to do with local political power balances and surrounding geopolitical conditions. Tunisian voters have clearly opted for two main political parties, which reflects the reality of polarization between these two entities in the country. The relative advance of Nidaa Tounes (38 percent to 31 percent) illustrates that a relative shift in favor of old regime forces has occurred. They have remobilized, recycled themselves and renovated their discourse and some of their faces at the expense of the new forces brought forward by the revolution.
This points to the reality of the ‘Arab Spring’ decline and to the impact of the geopolitical environment over Tunisia and the forces of change in the wider region. Ennahdha rose to power on the wave of change that had swept across the Arab world and is now retreating with the old forces’ return amidst the resurrection of climates of military coups in the region. Small Tunisia and Ennahdha movement could not break this general trend, even if they managed — with great difficulty — to restrain it with the survival of the country’s nascent democratic experiment.
Developments in Tunisia reflect a general rule that applies to those who shoulder the burdens of government in the aftermath of revolution, with all its pressures, challenges, even dangers. Standing on the frontline in post-revolution times comes at a price. It entails a drop in popularity, as revolutions necessarily ignite mass fervor and raise the threshold of expectations to a level hard to meet in normal circumstances, and impossible in the strenuous tumultuous conditions of post revolutions.
This fact is vividly illustrated by the electoral performance of the two secular parties that had entered into an alliance with Ennahdha following the October 2011 elections and had shared the burdens of power with it. Their losses have been bitterly heavy, with the Congress for the Republic dropping from 29 to four seats only, while the Forum for Labour and Liberties, whose chairman had served as the Constituent Assembly leader for the last three years, lost all its seats and was ejected altogether from the new parliament.
Other crucial factors to bear in mind include the challenges and dangers posed to the Tunisian experiment from its direct and indirect geographic environment, from Libya and Southern Sahara, with increasing terror threats due to arms proliferation in Libya and a widening of the circle of anarchy, conflicts and wars in the Arab hemisphere. Equally significant have been the the country’s economic difficulties due to political unrest and climates of instability. Such ordeals were aggravated by the economic crisis that has engulfed the economies of Europe to which Tunisia’s economy has been inextricably tied since its independence in 1956.
The Tunisian election results will no doubt have a palpable effect on Ennahdha party, forcing it towards greater accommodation to its local environment, as well as renovation and reform within a more open democratic context. What is crucial for those with an interest in the subject, however, is to begin to view this party, just like other political Islamic actors, as socio-political phenomena prone to advance and decline, rather than entities outside history.
They must free themselves of their mystical outlook and of culturally essentialist interpretations of political parties with an Islamic background. In open democratic settings, these are likely to move closer towards the model of Christian democratic parties in Europe. Ennahdha party of Tunisia may, in fact, serve as a laboratory for the possible evolution of political Islam in this direction. The question is: when will “Western” journalists and experts rid themselves of their ideological biases and start to see reality as it is, with all its complexities, shades and nuances ?