Islamism is nothing but politics draped in religious garb. The declared aim of Islamist parties is to implement sharia and to unify the Islamic nation under the rule of the Caliphate. Hence, it is no wonder that the first announcement made by Mr. Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s first candidate for the presidential election in Egypt, was that sharia law would be his “first and final objective,” and that his successor, Mr. Mohamed Morsi, chose to lead his supporters at his first public rally to the chant: "The Quran is our constitution and sharia is our guide."
Therefore, you could be forgiven for thinking that the first priority for Tunisia’s new Islamist rulers would be to implement sharia, but you would be wrong. Less than five months after winning the elections, Ennahdha officially renounced its previous attempts to introduce sharia as a source of law in the new constitution. How come?
Ennahdha founder Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi explained the renouncement by stating: “we want to bring the fuss over sharia to an end and get on to the most pressing problem – unemployment.” However, if this was the case, why did he wait five months to make the decision public?
The fact of the matter is that Tunisia’s Islamists feel more vulnerable nowadays than many would have anticipated. Even after winning 41% of Constituent Assembly seats in elections last October, they set up a coalition government with secular partners, namely the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum, whose membership comes from leftists and human rights activists and for whom declaring sharia a source of law in the constitution is unacceptable.
Hence, Tunisia’s Islamists have no choice but to make concessions in order to keep the ruling trifecta together. It began when Ennahdha gave up the Ministry of Education to the Democratic Forum despite its crucial importance for their pursuit to undo the reforms initiated in 1989 by former Education Minister Mohamed Charfi. Under these reforms, school textbooks came under close scrutiny: all passages preaching intolerance were deleted, leaving room for an emphasis on the best of Muslim medieval thought in religious education, while the science curriculum incorporated Darwinian evolution and the Big Bang Theory. The introduction of such reforms led to an immediate and defining rupture between Ennahdha and former President Ben Ali, who was accused of the “de-Islamization” of the country.
Currently, Ennahdha seeks the return of pre-Charfi era textbooks, while implementing a far-reaching "Arabization" linguistic reform in order to end what Ghannouchi called "linguistic pollution," referring to the extensive use of French in education and the public sphere. Its secular partners, however, made it clear that education should remain out of Ennahdha’s hands, and they have succeeded thus far.
Giving up sharia, the second major Islamist surrender in post-revolutionary Tunisia, will undoubtedly complicate Ennahdha’s attempts to accommodate the rising Salafist movements. Although they were considered a “national threat” by Tunisian President, Dr. Moncef Marzouki, Ennahdha preferred negotiation with them to outright confrontation. After all, the movements are no strangers to one another. Ghannouchi said that he used to be a Salafi himself, and a large base of his movement still identifies with this ultra-conservative brand.
The Ennahdha-led government took a decisive step on May 11, 2012 when it granted a license to the Salafist Islah Front, which will make the party eligible in future elections. True, the license was granted according to the law, signifying respect for the civil nature of the state. However, legalistic considerations ring hollow when Salafists have been attacking seculars, attempting to impose the niqab on women, and declaring “Islamic emirates” in some parts of the country, as they did last December in the town of Sejnane and with armed clashes in the governorate of Sfax.
Ennahdha’s leadership now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In a recent Assabah newspaper poll, 73% of respondents said they are not satisfied with the performance of the government, and 53% agreed that a secular "centrist party" would be in a position to win the next election. Therefore, Ennahdha’s balancing act must include concrete action against unacceptable behavior, which has already been demonstrated by the recent indictment of the young Salafist who took down the Tunisian flag at the University of Manouba to a six month suspended sentence.
However, more is needed if Tunisia’s Islamists are to dissipate fears of the secular populace and prevent the implosion of their political partnerships. As a result, the maximum the Islamist leadership can hope for in the current circumstances -- in a country where fiercely secular policies were pursued for the past six decades with notable success -- is the acceptance of incomplete and gradual Islamization, in an attempt to practice the difficult mix between Islam and democracy.
What has been deemed the “Tunisian exception” in the Arab world can be explained by the fact that: (1) Tunisia’s civil society is profoundly secular, including the nearly one thousand associations that have been created since the fall of the old regime, which belong primarily to women, human rights groups, and youth, (2) a secular-Islamist partnership began in Tunisia well before the recent regime change, particularly in the framework of the “October Alliance” of 2005, and (3) Tunisian secularism acts now from within the ruling coalition itself, giving it a more direct impact.
For these reasons, Tunisia’s success in keeping sharia out of the constitution as well as its success in setting up a secular-Islamist ruling coalition will be difficult to replicate in the other Arab countries. Nonetheless, Tunisia -- which has been a trendsetter for the events that unfolded in the region since the launch of its popular uprising in January 2011 -- may provide a model to secular forces and minority religious groups elsewhere who are similarly challenged by powerful and conservative Islamist foes.
Mohamed Bechri is former president of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International.