Tunisia's Nahda and Islamists post-revolutions

There's a good piece on Nahda, the Tunisian Islamist party, by Graham Usher at MERIP which is a good antidote to some of the more alarmist "the Islamists are coming!" stuff:

Compared with other parts of Tunisia’s new political order, however, Nahda looks well placed. Analysts say the movement came out well from the tumult of Tunisia’s second revolution. Its national structure gives it an edge over the dispersal of votes likely to be caused by the spread of new parties. “Nahda has a base,” says the trade unionist Abdelkifi, who is no Islamist. “Tunisians are religious. It will attract those who do not know where to go.” Ghannouchi says if Nahda "gets a 30-35 percent vote for the constituent assembly, we’ll be very happy." Others will be alarmed by such a proportion, and not only in Tunisia. The 35 percent figure is probably hype, say observers, though 25 percent is possible. But the truth is that nobody really knows the depth of Nahda’s base, or that of any other party, due to the extreme de-politicization of Tunisian society during the Ben Ali era.

And there are other reasons why it is hard to assess Nahda’s weight. As it was banned from 1991 to 2011, most Tunisians under 30 (54 percent of the population, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics) have no experience of the movement as a political organization. Political Islam for them can mean anything from Turkey’s Justice and Development Party to al-Qaeda, but it is always geographically distant. But older Tunisians, particularly from the more affluent urban middle classes, do have personal memories of Nahda -- and most are unpleasant. They remember how, in the 1980s, earlier incarnations of Nahda bombed hotels, threatening Tunisia's vital tourist industry. And how, in 1991, Nahda militants attacked an RCD office in Tunis, killing one civilian, and throwing acid in the faces of others. For many Tunisians, these incidents raised the specter of an Algeria-like civil war, a fear that Ben Ali’s regime stoked at every opportunity. Twenty years later, the specter has yet to be exorcised among Tunisia’s secular elite.

That applies to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt too — we just don't have a good read yet on what the emerging political landscape will be, because real politics were absent for decades. The Islamists will do well, no doubt, but it's not a question of Islamists vs. regime anymore. Other ideas, movements and personalities are emerging that could very well take away from their support.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.