Mosque & State: Tunisia's Moderate Islamist Party Is Favored In Next Month's Vote
Tunisia's Nahda party is working to improve its image amongst foreigners and skeptical secularist voters. But it does not renounce its desire for a democracy based on Islamic values.
TUNIS – At a meeting last week, Tunisia's moderate Islamist party Nahda (Renaissance) outlined its policy proposals for next month's parliamentary elections. Simultaneous translation headphones, staff hired specifically to answer every foreign journalists' whim: everything was aimed at improving the party's image, as Tunisians voters prepare to vote next month. Indeed, Nahda is leading in the polls.
The party's program, a mix of Turkey's market-oriented Islamism and more traditional values, included such measures as economic reform, a new union of Arab countries and the reduction of women's weekly working hours, so that they can "devote more time to their families."
The gathering opened with the assembly chanting verses from the Koran and every speech began with "In the name of Allah, most Gracious, most Merciful." This probably won't improve the party's image in Tunis, a city that is increasingly Europeanized. But Nahda knows that it's in villages that it will win seats for the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the program underlines the importance of fishing and farming, but also stresses the need to raise low salaries and give more to poor families.
Besides outlining the party's program, Nadha also wanted to emphasize its modernity: "Islamists have always been misunderstood. We only want to keep the most objective principles, like peace and science. Religion is between you and God," confessed Mondher Ounissi, a doctor. Supporters have mastered a well-oiled speech. It is impossible to find out where the campaign funds come from or what kind of society the party has in mind.
Nahda's president, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, learned the lessons of the revolution and now advocates "a participative society, a market-oriented economy supported by a new social contract." He says he wants to build "a democratic regime based on the values of Islam." Tunisians may be in for the long haul as there have been repeated talks of "extending the planned two presidential terms."
In the streets of Tunis, these ideas aren't welcome - especially among the youth: "If I wanted to invite a female friend to a flat I share with friends, she wouldn't be able to stay overnight. The whole neighborhood would start gossiping. She'd be in trouble," a very young supporter confessed, even though he said he couldn't see himself anywhere but among Islamists in the future. "It's a fairer society. Some complain about order and restrictions, but what we're looking for is dignity."
Not a word about headscarves
Riding the wave of fashionable themes – an independent judiciary system, a strong cooperation between the people and the state and above all, creating about 600,000 jobs – Nahda wants to create an Arab Maghreb Union to challenge the Union for the Mediterranean when it comes to dealing with Europe. The same goes for the economy: a "common North African market with our Libyan and Egyptian brothers," coupled with investments that would contribute to "GDP growth."
There was, however, no word on the Islamic headscarf or on polygamy (Tunisia is the region's only country where men are allowed to marry only one woman). Rashid Al-Ghannushi only mentioned the decline in the number of divorces as a result of the decision to reduce women's weekly working hours.
And finally, when asked about what kind of relationship he would want between Tunisia and Europe, the Islamist leader avoids any commitment and speaks of "respecting treaties' and "getting involved in the long-term." Nothing new, then, except an impressive U-turn in terms of communication, one month before the elections.
Read the original story in French