Tunisia's Islamist party showing signs of radical shift

AFP , Thursday 17 Nov 2011

Tunisian analysts worry Islamist party Ennahda may curb women's rights and follow conservative line of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood after tone of recent comments

Leader of Tunisia's Ennahda Rachid Ghannouchi, (Photo: Reuters).

Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party, which vowed to pursue moderate policies after it won elections last month, has provoked concern about its radical roots by evoking the caliphate and criticising single mothers.

Many Tunisians loathed Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship for its unchecked corruption and allergy to genuine democracy, but his toppled regime once stood out as an Arab state with a progressive approach to gender equality.

Souad Abdelrahim, the sole female member of Ennahda not to wear a headscarf, last week sparked concern that the party might seek to curb women's rights.

She said single mothers were "inconceivable in an Arab Muslim state" and added "they must marry" in order to attain full rights.

The 47-year-old pharmacist, who was touted during the election campaign as the moderate face of Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, later said she was "misunderstood", and described single mothers as "victims".

Tunisia's social network activists, credited with propelling the uprising that ousted Ben Ali in January, promptly labelled Abdelrahim the "Tunisian Sarah Palin" after the conservative former Alaska governor.

Then, last Sunday, Hamadi Jebali the party's number two official who is tipped as a possible prime minister, alarmed some by evoking "the caliphate", an Islamic system of government based on sharia law.

Social network satirists pounced again, producing images of Jebali wearing a regal turban.

Another Ennahda moderate, the lawyer Samir Dilou, tried to persuade the public that his colleagues' remarks were taken out of context, a move consistent with the party's efforts to ease anxiety about its Islamist bend.

He was bombarded on Facebook and branded the party's "chief executive in charge of denials".

Less humorous political analysts have warned that with these recent comments Ennahda has revealed its true nature, even as the party strives to form an interim coalition government.

"Up to the elections, Ennahda made no missteps, and avoided controversy. But since their victory, they have relaxed", said the writer and journalist Sofiene Ben Fahrat.

"We shouldn't forget that Ennahda has an ideological and strongly religious frame of reference," she added.

Party founder and leader, Rached Ghannouchi, had called in the 1970s for the strict application of Sharia Islamic law to restore order in a society he said had become depraved.

He has become more moderate in his statements over the years, and recently reaffirmed the party's "commitment to the women of Tunisia, to strengthen their role in political decision-making, in order to avoid any going back on their social gains."

The party won 89 out of 217 seats in Tunisia's new constitution-writing assembly, and needs to court allies from other camps if it hopes to govern.

But, said Ben Fahrat, Ennahda is itself partially divided, and it's not clear whether its conservative or liberal wings will drive policy moving forward.

Political analyst Kamel Ben Younes agreed a number of "dangerous blunders" since winning the elections, clashing with its pre-vote commitment to "republican politics", showed an internal rupture.

There was an ideological divide, he said, between a younger generation of supporters with a modernist approach and a leadership with a mindset closer to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egypt-born conservative Islamist party, he said.

Ben Younes, who runs a Tunisian foreign policy journal, recalled Ennahda's efforts to reassure moderates after the election, notably targeting potential investors and womens' rights groups.

"The more they reassure us, the more they worry us," he said.

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