After the 2011 Arab uprisings, the success of Islamist parties across the region raised many questions about the future of democratization. A few years down the line, however, the impact they have on democratic politics in the region appears to be quite limited. The glaring exception is the case of the Ennahda party in Tunisia; a country in which the Islamists have contributed to a successful process of democratic transition. Does this mean that Tunisia is a template for democratization in the region and a model of political integration of Islamism in a democratic political system? Is the Tunisian transition an indication of things to come for Islamist parties or is it the exception? With the collapse of the Turkish model of the AKP as a shining example of Islamism in working multiparty democracy, Ennahda could become the new model to follow. As discussed here, whether or not this is the case depends on the internal dynamics of the party and on the nature of Tunisian democracy.

To understand what makes Ennahda’s brand of Islamism and Tunisia’s brand of multiparty democracy function the way they do, it is necessary to look back at Arab uprisings and at the Tunisian state. The uprisings provided different types of political opportunities for different Islamist movements (and indeed for many other political and armed actors). These opportunities were shaped by the model of governance of the ‘old regime’, and by how the protests unfolded. In this respect, Tunisia had several advantages compared to other states in the region. The uprising and transition were quite short, armed actors were not involved, and opposition political actors had experience and were on talking terms with each other.

However, even in this favourable context, it is worth noting that after the uprising there were two main movements mobilizing people around Islamic themes in Tunisia. The more liberalized and politicized Islamists of Ennahda, and the more revolutionary and conservative salafis of Ansar al-Sharia. In Tunisia as in the other democratic transitions of the region, such as Libya and Egypt, the opening up of the political field empowered multiple Islamist movements. In these circumstances, religious competition could be as important as political competition. Indeed, in Egypt, the failure of the democratic transition was caused at least in part by the rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafis; a competition which led the MB-led Morsi government to side-line secular political parties. Ultimately, these secular parties, alongside the salafi party al-Nour, supported the 2013 military coup of General Sisi against the elected Muslim brotherhood government.

In Tunisia by contrast, the democratic transition was grounded on political alliances and ruling coalitions between the Islamists of Ennahda and secular political parties. This occurred as early as 2011 after the first multiparty elections when Ennahda came first in the polls and led a governing coalition with two leftist and liberal parties. It took place again after the 2014 parliamentary elections when the Islamists came second and agreed to be the junior partner in a ruling coalition led by the main secularist party Nidaa Tounes. This scenario, though very different from the Egyptian situation, bears some resemblance to the case of the Turkish Welfare party in the 1990s that built similar alliances with both left-wing and right-wing secular parties.

In the process, however, Ennahda, had to take its distance with the salafi movement; and the Ennahda-led government even classified Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization in 2013. The political observation that can be made in these contexts is that Islamist movements and parties are not necessarily natural allies in national politics. This indicates that for Islamist parties, the religious logics of their actions is not necessarily in sync with their political strategy. In Tunisia, the political success of Ennahda is illustrative of a political strategy grounded on alliance building with secular political actors and on attracting a generally conservative voting constituency.

There are however religious and political costs for such a strategy, not least because it displeases the more religiously conservative and militant activists. Reduced grassroots religious activism in favour of Ennahda undermines its mobilizing capacity under ordinary political circumstances and at election times. As Ennahda becomes an ‘ordinary’ political party, it is less able to shape the religious debate in an authoritative manner when challenged by other Islamic voices, both in Tunisia and abroad. Hence despite its political success the Ennahda movement cannot claim to be the torch bearer for a new brand of Muslim democracy, that is to say a model integrating liberal, democratic and Islamic values and principle in a stable system of governance that would be applicable to all Muslim-majority countries. There is a tension between the domestic success of Ennahda as a political party and its international and religious recognition as an Islamic authority

Foreign governments, particularly in Europe, often fail to recognize and appreciate the religious leadership of Ennahda when they consider the future of Islamist parties and democracy in the region. Throughout the democratic transition, foreign policy-makers have encouraged a normalization of Ennahda by promoting a secular model of liberal democracy in which Islam was as little visible as possible. Unfortunately, this meant in practice not that Islamic issues were increasingly deemed irrelevant by the population, but rather that activists looked for other ways to express them. The steady flow of Tunisian nationals fighting the jihad in Iraq and Syria at that time was but one illustration of this trend. At some point, a successful Tunisian democratic transition will require that the Islam debate is integrated into the larger political debate in a more productive and consensual way. Then the example set by Ennahda and by Tunisia could be really useful for democratization processes in other states of the Middle East and North Africa. It could also be helpful for European states seeking to address better the Muslim and Islamic components of their own societies.

Dr. Frédéric Volpi is Senior Lecturer in international politics at the School of International Relations of the University of Saint Andrews (UK). He specializes in democratization, authoritarianism, contentious politics and Islamism, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. His most recent books include Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings (Ed.) (Amsterdam UP, 2018) Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa (Oxford UP, 2017), Handbook of Mediterranean Politics (Ed.) (Routledge, 2017), and Political Islam Observed (Oxford UP, 2010). Dr Volpi is also the editor-in-chief of the journal Mediterranean Politics.