Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Have Tunisia’s Islamists learned their lesson? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tunisians walk past a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, on December 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Ilyess Osmane)

The situation in Tunisia could have ended up mirroring either the Libyan or the Egyptian scenarios if the Ennahda Movement and other Islamist groups failed to realize that political participation means accepting all democratic conditions, not just the ballot boxes. Tunisia has had its fair share of difficult experiences during the transitional phase; in fact prominent political figures were assassinated for merely criticizing extremist groups during this period. The situation in Tunisia ultimately reached the tipping point of chaos and violence.

However, Tunisians also have a rich civil experience that saved them from fully sliding into chaos and violence—the legacy of first president of the republic Habib Bourguiba who established a civil culture based on justice, laws and mutual respect. This culture obstructed extremist religious movements who sought to take over governance by using democracy and disrespecting its rules—just as similar groups managed in Egypt and just as other groups are currently trying in Libya.

I think Ennahda—which can be considered one of the most moderate Islamist groups in the region and which understands the concept of inclusiveness—suffered from its share of misconceptions and mistakes. One camp within Ennahda pushed it to seek hegemony and power while another camp was ready and willing for democratic participation, truly respecting democratic rules and guidelines. Also within Ennahda, there was a third camp who seemed to be backing the vision of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which are based on the absolute power of religion, dominating all other state institutions and completely eliminating all competing views. This is the same vision that was followed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the previous era.

Fortunately for Ennahda itself, this latter movement—which subscribes to Baghdadi’s vision—failed and the rest learnt their lesson from what happened to their Egyptian comrades who lost their grip on power just one year after securing it. Their comrades in Libya also failed after resorting to violence to gain power by force.

I strongly doubt religious parties’ political capabilities. We can see a mountain of evidence regarding how the ambitions of parties such as this have always met with failure, whether in Iraq, Sudan, Gaza, Egypt or Libya. Those parties that came to power in the name of democracy later turned against democratic principles, securing their grip on the state and transforming into fierce dictatorships. Despite all this, the Tunisian political experience may be the only one with a chance of succeeding because it contains moderate political parties and a depth of political experience.

The extremist movement in Tunisia also tried its luck and failed during the reign of the previous parliament—it tried to adopt laws that restrained freedoms and that deprived women of the rights that they had gained during the past half century. However, these attempts to put a stop to Tunisia’s culture of diversity and openness ultimately failed with the Tunisian people rejecting their vision for society.

The politically developed Tunisian arena allows everyone to co-exist and to choose their lifestyle without imposing it on others. If Ennahda’s followers can co-exist with this concept by respecting others’ choices, then they will have passed the democratic test. However, if they continue to believe that the objective is to dominate the political scene, then what we are currently witnessing is nothing more than a temporary truce until the next elections.