Next month, Tunisians will go to the polls for the first time since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country last January.
Voters will determine the members of the National Constituent Assembly, which will be tasked with re-writing the constitution and determining the selection process of the next president and prime minister. One of the likely winners of the election is the Hizb Al-Nahda (translation: Renaissance Party) Islamist movement, which was once banned under the Ben Ali regime but is now a frontrunner in the upcoming election.
Traditionally, Tunisian elites have fiercely guarded the secular state against religious influence. However, as the opposition movement diverges according to political preferences, Tunisia’s new government will likely include representation from Islamic movements.
According to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a small majority of 54 percent approve of a secular government, whereas 51 percent of those surveyed said they prefer a moderately Islamist Constituent Assembly. With the potential for more than 90 parties to be listed on the ballot, polls show that the al-Nahda party may receive up to 22 percent of the vote.
Rejected for political party status in 1985 under the Ben Ali administration, the 40-year-old al-Nahda political movement was granted legal status last March by the interim government in a move to allow greater diversity in political representation. Despite beliefs that the party would limit individual rights, al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been a long time supporter of a multi-party system rooted in an elected president and parliament. Rather than advocating for a government ruled by clerics, he’s argued that “the state is not something from God but from the people.”
Ghannouchi’s pro-democracy rhetoric may be a relief to Westerners and Tunisian secularists, but there are strong reasons be wary of a double discourse. During the 1980s and early 1990s, many al-Nahda members were accused of terrorist activities, and Ghannouchi has admitted that party members have committed mistakes in the past.
Furthermore, in the early 1990s Ghannouchi was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly plotting against the state, but he fled to London before returning to Tunisia last January. Ghannouchi has a long record in advocating for an Islamist government, and yesterday’s unveiling of the al-Nahda platform reflects this.
While the details of al-Nahda’s electoral platform are vague, they are consistent with Ghannouchi’s recent rhetoric. According to the party’s roadmap, the four pivotal points for securing Tunisia’s future include the establishment of a parliament that empowers citizens, the holding of a legal referendum, maintaining better diplomatic relations, and achieving the successful engagement among all political parties at a local level.
One of the key priorities of al-Nahda is to reduce unemployment and rebuild the economy, which it hopes will be a short-term endeavor. To achieve this, the party insists that the economy should be regulated by social and moral values rather than through “a chaotic, savage free market.” Through this, al-Nahda leaders believe that Tunisia will become a country “of production rather than lavish consumption.”
Al-Nahda’s rejection of a free market should be of grave concern to not only foreign investors but the Tunisian private sector. While Ben Ali was undeniably a high-caliber autocrat, throughout the 1990s his administration undertook gradual economic reforms, including the privatization of some state-owned firms, simplification of the tax code, and greater fiscal restraint.
In doing so, Ben Ali is credited with boosting Tunisia’s economic competitiveness and reducing poverty. Unemployment in Tunisia is undoubtedly high, and the number of highly skilled workers outnumbered the positions that are available. Instead of calling for policy that reduces opportunities for economic growth, al-Nahda should open Tunisia’s markets and work with the business community toward reform.
Islamist movements in countries affected by the Arab Spring—such as al-Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—have seized the opportunity to compete for leadership of the next government. Tunisian voters should demand transparency and urge al-Nahda to provide more details of its roadmap to the public.
Tunisians have a right to know the policies and political sentiments of the people they vote for. Otherwise, they may be duped into voting for Islamist candidates with little respect for political freedom who abandon the pretense of democracy once they are elected.