Tunisia’s Islamic Wild Card

TUNIS – Can political Islam be a constructive player in a truly democratic system? Tunisia is currently trying to answer that question – with implications that extend to the entire Arab world. Indeed, given that no Islamist party has ever governed democratically in an Arab country, Tunisia (together with Egypt) is undertaking an historic experiment.

Several factors improve Tunisia’s chances of achieving a successful democratic transition. There is, for example, the country’s large and educated middle class and the historical moderation of Ez-Zitouna University, one of the oldest universities of Islamic theology. Moreover, an influential part of Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahda, developed democratic inclinations during its members’ long European exile.

But, more than two years after the start of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, there is still doubt about whether Ennahda can oversee the completion of a transition to democracy. Indeed, since winning Tunisia’s first free election in 2011, Ennahda has been unable to choose definitively whether to support a pluralistic or an Islamist state. This ambivalence has led to a high level of polarization between liberals and Islamists – and to political violence.

On one hand, Ennahda wants to unite political Islam under an umbrella of moderation and modernity. On the other hand, as competition from extreme Islamist parties has intensified, Ennahda has been tempted to move to the right to broaden its electoral base.