Islamism’s New Clothes

Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Hamadi Jebali, general secretary of Ennahda (the Renaissance Party), its leader Rached Ghannouchi, and party member Abdehhamid Jilassi at a press conference five days after Ennahda’s victory in Tunisian elections, Tunis, October 28, 2011

Many of us were wrong about the Tunisian elections on October 23. The most important result was not so much the victory of the Islamist Renaissance Party, or Ennahda—which won 89 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution for the country—but the desire of the Islamists to prove they had changed.

We have been dealing in Tunisia with a phase that we might well describe as a counterrevolution. I use the term “a phase” advisedly, because the most important event, in fact the only decisive one, will be the legislative elections that will take place after a year of debate in the new Constituent Assembly. A year is a long time. Anything can happen, and so it is a little late now for the proponents of a “modern” Tunisia to express disappointment and tell themselves that they just didn’t know their own people. (The Congress for the Republic Party, which represents such “modernists” and is led by the human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, came in second with twenty-nine seats and may join Ennahda in a ruling coalition.) The modernists can certainly reproach themselves—as can we along with them—for having underestimated both the share of votes achieved by the revolutionary Islamist party and also its ability to inflame the feelings and the imaginations of the Tunisian voters. No doubt, the modernists can just as reasonably reproach themselves for having failed to avoid the disarray caused by their divisions within a solidly conservative society.

What becomes of Islamism when the victorious Islamist party is trying to persuade us that it subscribes to democratic values? Clearly the elections were a case of the Tunisian people themselves calling a legal halt to a revolution that they originally conceived and that spread across the Arab world. The shock produced by Ennahda’s victory is just as substantial and meaningful as the shock of the revolution in Tunisia of January 2011. Perhaps the term we should use is not shock, but in certain sectors it is more like a wave of panic, while in others it’s a general sense of confusion. The reason is that every aspect of this episode has been ambiguous, uncertain, and unlikely.

First observation: the Tunisians have reminded us that an uprising against a tyrant, even a successful one, may not amount to a revolution against a religion. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt rejoiced in the belief that their Tunisian brothers had helped to advance their own Egyptian cause. Some Libyan leaders subsequently confirmed that their future government would be theocratic in nature and that they wished to be seen as “moderate” Muslims. It remains impossible…

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