Academic, historian and researcher on Islamism and Salafism in North Africa and the Middle East, Alaya Allani explains in this interview with AfricanManager, why the Tunisian Islamist party will have difficulty accepting the idea of leaving power.
Allani said the July 25 movement has put an end to the experimentation of political Islam in Tunisia, adding this will have repercussions on the rest of the religious movements in the Arab world and in the region.
He noted, however, that Ennahdha, which will enter political wilderness in a period that could last two parliamentary terms, will have to make revisions and achieve its own historical consensus, through the separation of politics from religion, and abandoning the idea of using religion for political purposes.
Ennahdha is still in denial of its failure, and is still unable to assimilate the will of the same population that brought it to power, to see it leave. How does the specialist of religious movements that you are explain this?
Ennahdha is not an exception among the currents of political Islam. It is indeed proven that those who come to power, develop a great desire to maintain themselves there. We saw it, for example, in Sudan where they stayed for 30 years, in Egypt where it could have been the same, if not for the reaction we know, and we remember the voices that had said after the revolution in Tunisia that we are there for thirty years. As soon as they are in power, the Islamists have a program, like all Islamist movements that become political parties. They start with a preaching movement, go through expansion, and then move on to the “Tamkine” or the seizure of power. All parties of political Islam in the Arab world have the same strategy.
To understand why Ennahdha is so keen on power in Tunisia, we must remember that they had accepted, during the Essid government, to be represented by only one minister. But this does not mean that they have not been in power. Ghannouchi had actually said, during the Mehdi Jomaa government, we had left the government, not the power. After the 2011 elections, they had tried to get into the regional and central administration. Leaving the power, is for them considered as a squandering of all the effort made to settle there, through their men implanted in the various cogs of the Administration. We will be probably surprised, in the coming days and through what we could understand from some speeches of the Head of State, by things that could appear, as in the Ministry of ICT.
For the Islamist political parties, and unlike others, as soon as they are in power, they try to introduce themselves, as widely and as quickly as possible in all the wheels of administration, both local and central through the regional. This is because they are afraid that their project will be discovered. And there is in all this an exploitation of religion for political purposes. And for Ennahdha, this is its business. Ennahdha, this party that manages huge sums of money that we hope justice will be interested in, considers that since 2011, it has lost 2 / 3 of its electoral reservoir, hoped that with its money and its religious capital used in politics, it will not soon leave power. This is thanks to conscience purchases and by a political “demagoguery” of those who believe that they fear God and therefore cannot be thieves, do not launder money or do not smuggling.
What explains the failure of Ennahdha to achieve its project of Tamkine in Tunisia?
For post-July 25, 2021 Ennahdha, I consider first that it is this party that is behind the situation that led to this popular movement of July 25. But also, the lobbies of corruption that have become active since 2011. This does not mean that all businessmen are of this ilk. It is however a fact that Ennahdha had not developed clear and sharp positions on this issue of corruption. This explains the rift between the population and the Ennahdha party, born on the occasion of July 25. This is also a consequence of the alliance between Ennahdha and the lobbies of corruption. And this is how we realize that from political Islam, there remain only hollow slogans. We can thus say, although we did not reach the elections, that political Islam is dead in Tunisia. The popular movement of July 25 had something to do with it and that was said by many politicians, even from Ennahdha, and it will be a shock for many other parties of political Islam at the regional and Arab levels.
This is because Tunisia’s experience has been the longest among the countries of the so-called Arab Spring. Its end was not born of a coup, nor of a judicial process, but began in the streets where the people had gone down, as did the process that brought it to power. And we all remember the arrival of Ghannouchi in Tunisia and the welcome he received.
Ten years later, it finds itself with a third of the electoral pool that brought it to power. And many say that this third of the 500 thousand left to it is not an accurate figure. This is testified by the report of the Court of Auditors on the conduct of elections in 2019, and all the legal issues raised and could result in court cases and electoral sanctions, and it is all this that had also fueled the uprising of the population against Ennahdha. The wise men of this party know all this very well, and I personally doubt that this party can take part in elections again, because they know very well that they will not win even half of the seats in 2019.
I also believe that Ennahdha will go through a period of questioning, will experience many internal problems, not to mention the multiple files that will be opened and which the party will have to face, such as the secret apparatus, political assassinations, and will find itself away from power.
It will probably remain in the opposition, if it manages to harvest a few seats in parliament, for one or two parliamentary terms, outside the spheres of power.
In fact, Ennahdha had everything it needed to stay in power, but the result was more than meager, with a country on the verge of bankruptcy and a social situation at the bottom of the ladder. Ennahdha will no longer be the example to follow for any voter, and will show that political Islam has no program, and that Ennahdha is certainly a very good maneuverer, but unfit to govern a country.
While you were talking about the revisions, do you think that it can also concern the status of Rached Ghannouchi, both within the party, and at the head of the legislative power? Why do you think Ghannouchi, who certainly knows all these problems, wants to stay?
Some say that there is a kind of blackmail that he would do to the head of state. And what we know about the latter, is that he is inaccessible to this kind of barter. There are rumors behind the scenes of some mediation between the two men, in return for some concessions. I say this with all the usual reservations.
But the revisions at Ennahdha will begin after the period of structural rather than cyclical difficulties. This party is in fact built around the idea of power and the charisma of the leader who has, in particular, the moral, spiritual, material and financial strength.
These powers make him the mobilizing element of the group. The financial element, by the opacity of the finances of this party, will also be one of the factors of difficulties within it, and we know that in all Islamist parties in the Arab world, the treasurer is appointed by the leader.
And therefore, the exit of Rached Ghannouchi would be a serious blow to the financial power of the party.
The departure of such a personality, with its moral, spiritual, financial and symbolic weight for the whole party, would lead to the loss of a large part of its base.
Do you believe, as Abdellatif Mekki suggested, that Rached Ghannouchi is not very keen to remain at the head of the ARP?
I believe and from what I understand of President Saïed’s personality, he will never enter into this type of blackmail. For him, either you are innocent or guilty, it is up to justice to decide. Moreover, I think that after July 25, Ghannouchi has lost all the cards that could allow him to exert pressure.
He has lost the pressure of the street, the credibility with a good part of his base, and even on the international scene, as with his interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, where he brandished the threat of illegal immigration, a statement that had disturbed all of Europe.
It remains that, as is the case for all of Tunisia and particularly the popular movement of July 25, 2021, we are more inclined to change, even radical, but without bloodshed.
Ennahdha also seems to have chosen, certainly not willingly, not to be drawn into the violent escalation. It is now an established fact among analysts and researchers that this 50-year-old and Islamic-leaning organization will have great difficulty to be a political party in power.
The benchmark has shown that this type of religious party has never clearly adopted the rules of democracy. Ennahdha enjoyed the longest period of international support for this experiment in political Islam, and ultimately failed, and its slogans could do nothing about it.
Has this changed anything in Ennahdha? In other words, has it learned lessons?
In two congresses, this Tunisian Islamist movement missed the opportunity to achieve its historical consensus, as it was with the socialist parties in Europe, which were able to divest themselves of what was called the dictatorship of the proletariat and central democracy. For all religious movements, Ennahdha should have accepted to abandon the idea of using religion for political purposes, especially in a Muslim society.
Publicly, however, they preach the separation of the religious from the political. But now, no one believes them, in Europe and even in the US, where the Biden administration is proving to be different from that of Obama.
How then could we understand the position of some American officials, who call and insist on the return of the ARP in activity, which will mean the return of Ennahdha to power?
I, like others, read the White House statement after the telephone conversation of the head of state with the U.S. security adviser, and I did not see what you say. What he said, as did other European countries, was the appointment of a head of government, and this sentence went unnoticed about the return of the democratic process in due course. And that means that the return to normalcy will be done in the end, in one way or another, either through early elections, a referendum or other democratic means.
Do you not consider that there is a kind of pressure in favor of Ennahdha?
No, I don’t think so, because the European and American positions of the Biden administration are based on the issue of human rights, and have only said that you are given time to make things go back to normal in Tunisia in due course.
This is what the people demand, and the head of state cannot refuse this. It is a question of timing, although we hope that it will not last longer than necessary and that the roadmap will eventually clear things up. I think that the head of state did not have a problem with political Islam, but rather with the crumbling of the state between three heads, and the recovery of stolen funds. This is, in my opinion, what will constitute his roadmap, with a government oriented mainly towards the economy, without forgetting the social and health components.
And if the Head of State has taken in hand the Public Prosecutor’s Office, it is to accelerate the opening of major cases, to give credit to his intentions to change things.
Finally, do you believe that Ennahdha is finished in Tunisia and that it will definitely leave the Tunisian political scene?
It is finished, in the sense that it will leave power. It may change its name or its discourse, but I believe that political Islam will no longer be in power or among the Executive in Tunisia. It could remain in the legislature with fewer seats, but never again in the Executive, neither in the short nor in the medium term, for the next two or three terms. Neither its record, nor all the harm it has done, will allow this to happen. Ennahdha will certainly keep a small electoral base, perhaps remain in the ARP, but with a presidential regime, it is the head of state who will keep the hand on the management of state affairs. A presidential regime, the amendment of the electoral law and the code of local governance will result in an Ennahdha becoming unable to impact political life in Tunisia.