The Ennahdha Party Tenth National Congress, attended by 1,185 party delegates from across Tunisia and overseas, was a keenly anticipated moment in Tunisia’s political calendar. One particular issue has intrigued observers – the party’s decision to relinquish the social and religious aspects of its work as a “movement” (haraka) and to become a purely political party (hizb). Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has dramatically announced that “there is no longer any justification for political Islam in Tunisia.” Is this move to shed the Islamist label and to define itself as a “party of Muslim Democrats” really a radical change? How did this step come about, and why is the party setting aside an element that has defined it for decades?
This analysis sets out the changes ushered in by Ennahdha’s Tenth National Congress, examining how and why they happened and what they mean for the party’s future development and for its position in Tunisia’s political landscape. The Congress decisions, while certainly a bold move by Ennahdha, merely confirm changes that have gradually been taking place in Ennahdha’s role, identity and priorities over recent years. The reality of Tunisia’s changing political context has placed new constraints on Ennahdha and opened up new opportunities. By taking the decision to leave behind its origins as a social movement concerned with religious and moral questions to become a national political party concerned with political and economic reform, Ennahdha’s leadership is making a gamble that risks losing part of its support base. However, this also opens up the chance to become an inclusive, broad-based political party firmly occupying the Tunisian centre ground.
Beyond the Tunisian context, Ennahdha provides an interesting case study for understanding what factors and processes lead to change in the discourse, positions and strategies of Islamic-based parties. Ennahdha’s move holds potential lessons for other Islamic parties on the viability of a “separation” between politics and religion, and how such a move can be achieved internally. It also puts forward a new concept of “Muslim Democrats” as a way of conceptualizing the relationship between governance and religion and addressing key questions of how Islam, democracy, pluralism and freedom can be accommodated in diverse societies.