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“Democracy and Islam Go Together”


The Islamic Ennahda party has 69 members in Tunisia’s 217 seat parliament, among them SAYIDA OUNISSI and NAFOUEL EJAMMALI. After spending decades underground, their party helped contribute to the democratic transition.


© REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Bad governance has commonly been regarded as a source of discontent in the Arab world. After the Arab Spring, Tunisia seems to have found a path to
a more stable, inclusive way of governing. What went right?

Sayida Ounissi: We have come to understand that democratic stability is a necessary condition for the efficient organization of the state. When the political landscape is fragile and fragmented and when there are no clear goals, programs, and coalitions, it is very difficult for the state to do its job. Ennahda is a coalition partner in the current government. We know only too well what we are talking about. Good governance is of particular importance for a country with a large public sector like Tunisia. Of a population of roughly 10 million people, 450,000 are employed by the state. Good governance is not only important for the development of our country, it is equally important for Tunisia’s reputation abroad as we are negotiating economic reform programs with our partners in the EU as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

What are the lessons Ennahda draws from the Muslim Brotherhood’s experience in government in Egypt?
Ounissi: It is difficult to compare the situations in Egypt and Tunisia. One of the biggest mistakes of the Morsi government was to keep other stakeholders and parties from taking responsibility. The Muslim Brotherhood did not understand that these actors also have a right to participate in the political process. We avoided this mistake. Right from the beginning, it was never Ennahda’s aim to rule the country alone. This attitude might be the result of our past experience, when we fought against the government in Tunis and worked together with leftist and secular opposition groups. This experience also helped us form a coalition government after winning the election in 2011. We are convinced that striking deals through political negotiation is the way to go. We have also understood that a genuine transformation process is only possible when more than one or two stakeholders are involved.

Nafouel Ejammali: Let me clarify something on the relationship between Egypt and Tunisia. There are large rivalries among Arab countries. It is often assumed that all things good – whether it concerns politics, culture, or literature – come from the East. However, this time it’s different, as Tunisia is leading the way. Ennahda and other Islamic movements are very different from the Muslim Brotherhood. We were involved in writing the constitution and continue to prove that democracy and Islam go together.

How and why does Ennahda benefit from a coalition government?
Ounissi: The coalition government is quite a big challenge for us. However, I am convinced that we have benefited a lot in the past one-and-a-half years of its existence. Our party has been strengthened and we are improving our reputation as a major national political force. We are cooperating with a range of partners: Nidaa Tounes is a loose alliance of a very diverse set of actors from the previous government, trade unions, NGOs, and old family clans. In the beginning, its members were mainly united by their opposition to Ennahda rather than a common agenda. Afek Tounes is another important player in the coalition. Its members appear to be competent, liberal, and modern; many of them used to live abroad before they returned to contribute to Tunisia’s restoration. Slim Riahi’s UPL is a populist party that received a lot of votes from young people and those who are not really interested in politics.

As to our role: Ennahda is a relatively established political party with a long tradition. We are well organized, disciplined, and have a strong hierarchy. We have learned that it is possible to work together with very different individuals as long as there is an agreement on common goals and policies. While being a part of government, Ennahda now has the opportunity to establish itself as a legal party firmly rooted within the political system. From the beginning we were a prosecuted political movement operating underground. The state prohibited any kind of religious activities; even praying in the mosque could lead to arrest. The oppression of Ennahda’s members only amplified the feeling of not belonging to Tunisian society. The democratic transition process can only function with us becoming a genuine part of the political landscape.

How is the collaboration with your other coalition partners coming along?
Ounissi: We are ready to work with everyone, and we have already proven that we fully accept democratic rules. We respect the constitution and the new laws, which, among other things, also regulate the financing of political parties. However, we are encountering problems when it comes to economic and social questions for which we have a clear vision. It is difficult to implement these ideas when other parties pursue their own agendas.

Ejammali: We are not really in the position to teach others lessons on how to behave in a coalition government since this is a relatively new phenomenon in Tunisia. Nonetheless, we are willing to accept compromises. For example, although Ennahda has 69 MPs, the second largest group in parliament, we only have one minister. This was our concession to ensure the government would function.

While it is certainly important to be open to compromise, establishing your own profile is equally necessary. What are the issues that are non-negotiable for you?
Ejammali: Our priority is the integrity of the constitution. It is the most important pillar of the Second Republic and it guarantees democratic development. And secondly, it is important for us to find a responsible way of dealing with the past.

Would you also recommend to other fragile states to draft a constitution as soon as possible?
Ounissi: We were not that fast; after all it took us three years. However, it was a good process in which everybody who was willing could participate. Now all actors can identify with the text. To us, dealing with the violent past was an important issue, while other parties considered this more of a “luxury problem.” They argued that the Islamists were mostly keen on financial compensation. We are convinced that dealing with such issues is important to avoid frustration, which, in return, could jeopardize the whole transition process.

This still requires much more discussion. For example, when we spoke against some of the proposals of the opposition when we were discussing the constitutional court organic law, we were accused of trying to undermine the independence of judges. Such constitutional questions will continue to occupy us for a long time since this is also about the identity of the state itself.

Ennahda is a religious party. How is it special, what makes it different from other parties?
Ejammali: We have had a lot of discussion on the identity of our party. I believe this is not unusual in the aftermath of a revolution. We need to follow our path, convince the people of our ideas and demonstrate that the Islamic movement in Tunisia is different from others. We have to show that democracy is indeed possible in Arab countries.

What does your party propose? Citing the tenets of the Enlightenment and secular democracy, we in the West claim to have successfully banned religion from public life. But this is not the case. We have, more importantly, banned absolute truth from the political system, instead. Is Ennahda ready to accept this?
Ejammali: Religion is a matter of perspective for us. Just as left-wing and socialist parties refer to the writings of Marx, we have the Koran. However, we do not approach issues such as public services, health care, and social security with reference to the Holy Book, but through political negotiation. In the past, the relationship between state and religion was very problematic, because the state did not accept how Tunisians practice their religion. That’s why our party, together with NGOs and civil society associations, tried to stand up against the state authorities. Today’s situation is very different. We have an open, democratic society and every Tunisian is free to practice his or her religion the way they want.

This means there is an open, pluralistic dialogue on identity and all those participating in it can contribute their ideas?
Ounissi: Islam is a pluralistic religion in which there is more than just one correct answer to a question. However, some states are spending a lot of money to try and convince people that their understanding of Islam is the only appropriate one. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Islamic universities interpret the Koran in a way that matches their respective societies. The Ez-Zitouna University in Tunis — the oldest in the Arab world and the alma mater of our party leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi — has the reputation of advocating the compatibility of Islam and the modern world.

We are convinced that only free people can practice their religion the way they deem it right — thus, the state does not dictate how to go about it. Only then can they truly be held to account by God. Tunisia has never been a secular state. It always had an official religion, even under Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunesia from 1956 to 1987 and, despite not being religious himself, controlled Islam. It was under his rule that the Ez-Zitouna University became an instrument in the hands of the authoritarian rulers, just as Al-Azhar University in Egypt is today. However, Tunisia’s constitution today includes an article that is unique in the Arab world. Article 6 says that the state has to guarantee both the security and the freedom of worship.

You mentioned the strict hierarchy within your party. What kind of positions are held by women and young members?
Ounissi: Politics is generally not an easy field for women. This is nothing new, and it also applies to Tunisia. Ennahda has committees for women and young members. However, this is a double-edged sword as these members cannot contribute in other important areas. When I assumed my mandate in parliament, I deliberately decided to join the Financial Committee. The rights of women and young people are certainly important but I’d rather advocate their rights where financial decisions are being taken.

If you want to change something, you need to be where the money is.
Ounissi: Correct! Currently, only three of the Financial Committee’s 22 members are women. We are working toward increasing the share of women in high-profile committees. Unfortunately, I sometimes have the impression that some positions are only being filled with women to rebut the party’s conservative image. This is not what we are aiming for, even if the number of women is growing. We are currently developing a strategy which focuses on increasing the share of women in the party’s executive committee.

What are your expectations of Germany and the European Union?
Ejammali: We want to plant the idea that Tunisia is just as close to, say, Germany as Ukraine is. Problems south of the Mediterranean are also a threat to security in Europe. We can only combat terrorism and security issues by strengthening our security system. And this is, first of all, an economic challenge. Tunisia is currently negotiating a new trade deal with the EU. The EU prefers to negotiate these agreements individually with each partner in the region. That’s why these negotiations are really tough for us, they feel like the struggle between David and Goliath. If the results end in a bad treaty with the EU from our point of view, this would lead to more poverty, which would in turn play into the hands of terrorists, allowing them to recruit even more young people. Security problems are not just an issue for our police forces and the army, they are also a matter of economic development. And the EU should finally give up its agricultural policies which are so disastrous for the countries of the South.

Tunisia is the only country that has followed the path of democracy after the Arab Spring. Yet, why are there so many young people joining ISIS?
Ejammali: I think there are two reasons. Those young people who are about 18 years old today were born at the time of the Ben Ali regime. They grew up with corruption and poor educational prospects and they experienced how the state oppressed Islam. The second reason, which is more important in my view, is the feeling of hopelessness. Those young people counted on the state, but the state did nothing against unemployment and poverty. It is mainly economic reasons that drive young people to go to Syria. I would say this is not a matter of religion.

Ounissi: The problem is really a lack of trust. The young people expected the state to protect their rights but were disappointed. There is no relationship between them and the state. Therefore we need to restore confidence in the state, particularly among the young people, and show them that the state protects their rights. One of the greatest challenges in the years to come is to give these young people opportunities and a place within society – so they will not have to take the extremely dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – July/August 2016 issue.